Ryan Murphy made a splash when he announced that, with his show “Scream Queens,” he’d “create[d] a whole new genre” called “comedy-horror.” Never mind that the genre has existed for decades, or that one of the show’s most tangible influences, “Scream,” is almost 20 years old. As when Sean Combs said he invented the remix, the claim itself is more significant than the truth of it. What Murphy, along with his regular collaborators, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, has done is put “comedy-horror” on network TV, with a cast that includes stars both horror (Jamie Lee Curtis) and pop (Ariana Grande, Nick Jonas), splitting the difference between “Glee” and “American Horror Story” in an over-the-top satire that’s most horrific when it tries to be comic, and vice-versa.
In its two-hour premiere, “Scream Queens” introduces us to Emma Robert’s Chanel, a college sorority president who refers to the house’s plump maid as “white mammy” and a black pledge as “hoodrat,” because racism is much funnier when it’s “ironic.” We meet new girl Grace (Skyler Samuels), an innocent but not-too-defenseless frosh who for some reason determines she’s going to seize the reins of Kappa Kappa Tau from Chanel and her anonymous minions — Chanel #2 (Grande), #5 (Abigail Breslin), et al. — rather than just finding better people to hang out with. (Ripping off the “Heathers” gag of a queen bee numbering her subjects is typical of “Scream Queens'” approach to let’s-just-call-it-homage.) And we meet the figure in a red devil costume who’s rapidly reducing the population of Wallace University with whatever sharp objects — chef’s knives, lawnmower blades — happen to be near at hand.
For a show that features the sight of skin sloughing off a freshly melted face, “Scream Queens” can be awfully broad: Its riff on horror’s attempt to integrate texting and social media with the mechanisms of slasher movies starts off inspired, then turns into an SNL sketch. And though Roberts was born, or possibly genetically engineered, to play this kind of acid-tongued queen bitch, having her spew offensive dialogue at every opportunity is a cheap ploy, as is populating the incoming group of KKT pledges with a woman in a neck brace (Lea Michelle) and a deaf Taylor Swift fan (get it?). It’s pure trolling, designed to get a rise out of skin-thinned viewers while flattering those who think themselves sophisticated enough to know that Murphy and co. couldn’t possibly mean it. Hipster racism, network TV style.
And yet, as the reviews wrestle with, “Scream Queens” has the sour tang of an addictive junk food — maybe crunchy Cheetos, the kind of that leave their telltale stains all over your shameful fingers. You won’t feel good about consuming it, but you’ll be back for more.
“Scream Queens'” two-hour premiere airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox, with episodes following on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
Reviews of “Scream Queens”
Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times
Leveraging the wearisome but troubling delight we take in watching pretty rich girls get ripped apart (at times literally), “Scream Queens” flirts with camp but settles for tweet-worthy. With obvious references to “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” there are long jokes about young women ordering lattes and murders too brutal to be funny but too cold-hearted to be chilling. The two-hour premiere depends so much on the presumed fan love for its stars — Ariana Grande! Keke Palmer! Lea Michele! In a neckbrace! — that it neglects to give them anything interesting to do.
Mike Hale, New York Times
The referential humor of “Scream Queens” tends to be better on the “Halloween” side of the equation than on the “Heathers” side, and some of its sendups of horror movies — or of horror-movie sendups — are pretty funny. A confrontation between the killer and a not-too-bright sorority sister in which they stand a few feet apart and text each other is a witty take on “Scream” conventions, as is a scene in which a rent-a-cop played by Niecy Nash enumerates the obviously ineffective ways in which she’ll provide security for the sorority. And Ms. Curtis’s winking, merry performance is its own self-contained slasher-film trope. “Scream Queens” bogs down, though, when it enters another familiar Brennan-Falchuk-Murphy territory, which could be called identity entertainment — their penchant for making any story, regardless of its subject matter or genre, deal largely in representations of (and gags about) gender, sexuality, race, class and whatever other categories they deem worthy of breaking down.
Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic
Viewers are likely meant to be as comically unsettled by Chanel’s antics as they are by the murder scenes, and sometimes they will be. But in 2015, “let’s laugh at hatefulness” is a pretty played-out routine — especially when it’s more or less the only humor the dialogue offers. It would be one thing if the show itself didn’t seem to subscribe to Chanel’s worldview, but the cruelty with which it treats some innocent characters and the stereotypical way it portrays others (lazy black security guards? Curtis as a sexually desperate, bitter veteran of ’70s feminism?) just isn’t fun. Murphy etc. would likely reply by saying the show is satire of a genre that’s inherently pigheaded and a system — college Greek life — that often thrives on unfairness. Others might say he’s just reveling in and amplifying racist/sexist/every-ist tropes to a primetime network audience.
Jamieson Cox, The Verge
The show puts all of its energy into punchlines, and once it gets there it doesn’t have anything to say. There are entire conversations and voice-overs devoted to exposition that exist solely to tee up spiteful one-liners for Roberts or her doofus frat boyfriend. And spite isn’t enough to sustain a show, not even one like this. There’s a version of this show somewhere that’s closer to lemonade, one that retains Roberts’ spark and its creators’ imagination but directs it at something other than a string of poison-tipped barbs. Inexplicably, they’d rather see you suck on the fruit.
Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire
At the end of its bloated, two-hour series premiere, it’s already starting to show signs of wear and tear, and of Ryan Murphy eating his own tail. See, all of his negative auteur tendencies are just as predictable as the good stuff. He continues to fall back on the idea that having terrible characters say racist things isn’t racist because their personalities are awful, but no, in fact, racist statements are racist statements. Chanel is a strange case, calling her put-upon maid “white Mammy,” referring to black KKT pledge Zayday Williams (Keke Palmer) as a “hoodrat,” and so on. This makes the case that her character is terrible, yes, but her terribleness is already established in better and more dramatic ways within the first half-hour; the racism is just Ryan Murphy overkill….
It’s an impressive feat: as much as I groaned and rolled my eyes and cursed Murphy’s obnoxious dialogue, I also found myself laughing and engaged in the absurd story, and immediately wanting to watch the next episode after the screeners had ended (and with such a cliffhanger!). It’s almost infuriating how good Ryan Murphy & co. are at getting me hooked on a show, considering how often they’ve burned me before. There are so many great moments within the first two hours — the tech humor is far better than MTV’s “Scream,” the deaths are terrifically gruesome (possibly too gruesome at times), the performances are a force all their own — that it’s almost enough to make up for the terrible aspects. Almost.
Margaret Lyons, Vulture
It’s “Glee” meets “American Horror Story,” 100 percent; it’s a thriller set in a sorority house and makes hay from the same kinds of strict social stratification that made “Glee” and “Popular” tick. There’s a serial killer not unlike “Nip/Tuck’s” masked Carver or every season of AHS. There is abundant “ironic” racism. There’s someone maybe too famous for the show (here, Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s also gloriously tearing it up and showing the newbies how it’s done. But we know what happened to “Glee.” And “Nip/Tuck.” And, frankly, to AHS, too: These are shows with short shelf lives. They burned so, so bright. But then they burned themselves right out — and yet kicked around for years and years. There are things only Ryan Murphy can or will do, but the tough part is that he does them again and again.
Joshua Alston, A.V. Club
Murphy excels at creating marketable television concepts, and “Queens” is perhaps his surest shot yet. It’s perfectly calibrated for Twitter consumption, between the oh-no-they-didn’t punchlines, act-break shockers, and hashtag-friendly title. But like so much of the fuel dumped into the social media furnace, “Queens” is instantly forgettable. Even the devilish killer, whose homicidal behavior is driving all of the action, ceases to exist whenever he’s not on screen. Even more than it tests the audience’s patience for Diablo Cody-style fanciful youth patter, “Queens” tests the audience’s grasp of object permanence.
Willa Paskin, Slate
“Scream Queens” feels in almost every way like “American Horror Story Lite,” which is not so bad. When “American Horror Story” is at its worst, as it was with last season’s “Freak Show,” it is unsettling, gloomy, and grasping, playing a bad game of pick-up sticks with capital-T themes. But at its best, as in “Asylum,” AHS is bold, emotional, and terrifying like nothing else on TV. Its ambitions are grander than “Scream Queens.” Just compare “Scream Queens” to “AHS: Coven,” which also featured Roberts and a group of college-age female outcasts: “Screams Queens” is younger, much less frightening, just about as funny, and more superficial, relying almost exclusive on Chanel’s stank mind for its shocks.
Brian Lowry, Variety
It’s all executed with cheeky style, but there’s also a too-familiar quality that extends to the show’s political targets, with the snotty sorority types expressing their admiration for Cindy McCain and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, and Chanel citing her desire to become the next Diane Sawyer. One of the frat boys, meanwhile, signals his stupidity by professing his fondness for the films of Michael Bay. Murphy and his creative brain trust are extremely good at packaging these projects for maximum media impact, adorning them with all kinds of shiny objects, provocative or nostalgic casting choices and sly references. Moreover, there’s something wonderfully liberating about being able to kill off characters, knowing that in success you simply reboot the whole thing under the same banner, without needing to worry about skidding off the rails the way “Glee” did.
Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter
“Glee” became a big tent show because its underlying message was one of inclusiveness and the embrace of uniqueness. “Scream Queens” eventually may integrate some of that, but what’s more immediately prevalent is a “Coven”/”Freak Show” vision of the world in which demographically unrepresented types are given token voices, but mostly serve as cheap punchlines. “Glee” might have tried to add dimension to the obese sorority maid or the deaf girl with halitosis, but that’s not really the “Scream Queens” ethos. “Scream Queens” presents a world in which the agency seemingly all belongs to women, which is empowerment message enough, even if most of these powerful women are aggressively awful or obtuse. They are “queens,” after all.