Ryan Murphy may be the king of first seasons. Between “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” the writer-turned-mega producer has been responsible for three substantial game-changers. “Nip/Tuck” helped to put FX on the map, earning early raves and even a Golden Globe win for Best Drama Series in its second season before completely falling off the map — creatively, critically and commercially — in later seasons. “Glee” was much of the same, but on a larger scale. TV musicals were all the rage for the two years “Glee” dominated the Nielsons, Billboard charts and awards shows. Yet it, too, felt the scorn of a fanbase frustrated with later season mistakes. “American Horror Story” is really the only series to hold up for more than a few seasons, and by now, it’s pretty clear why.
“AHS” is an anthology series. It gets the chance to reboot every year, introducing a whole new set of characters trapped in a diabolical scenario in which any one of them could be the next to get axed. No one is safe, and that edge makes the show an exciting event to anticipate every year.
On paper, combining the eternally fresh nature of “American Horror Story” with the teen speak of “Glee” seems like a perfect combination. Fox executives must have thought green-lighting an anthology series aimed at the most profitable demographic and created by a man who’s been nothing but beneficial to Fox networks was an easy “yes.” (They may now be rethinking things, as its overnight ratings were less than stellar.) Yet what’s both surprising and painfully obvious when watching the first two hours of his grown babies’ new prodigy, “Scream Queens,” is that this hybrid offspring of better shows not only lacks the initial intrigue of Murphy’s past work, but also the essential ingredient for any anthology series: creative risk.
The debate then shifts to why “Scream Queens” feels so shallow, fake and — most sinfully — boring. Is it that Murphy has become out-of-touch with his key demographic, or that he’s been neutered by broadcast networks’ risk averse development process?
There’s evidence for both sides. For his part, Murphy certainly doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to identify with modern youths. While “Glee” never really earned a seat at the cool kids’ table — you know, with actual teenagers — it did appeal to their broader, more mainstream desires by incorporating music both popular and current. “Scream Queens” has no such touchstones to rely upon, yet still tries to drop a few names here and there; most notably, Taylor Swift, who at this point is about as hip to teenagers as Jay-Z is hip to 30-year-olds.
Worse yet is the show’s insistence on pretending to know what’s cool without ever saying or doing much of anything. (As I write these words, I am struck by the idea that that, in fact, may be what’s now cool.) Even with a two-hour premiere, “Scream Queens” felt like it was stalling for time so it could end on its one fun and unexpected twist. Along the way, we’re treated to some pretty tame scenes of sorority-style torture and general bumbling of potentially scary moments (more on that shortly). Most egregious by far, though, is that Murphy actually seems to reprimand the audience he’s targeting in one of the show’s only legitimate attempts to blend horror and comedy.
As one of the Chanel-numbered sorority sisters tries to pack her bags and escape campus, the Red Devil — whose outfit is actually pretty cool — sends her a text message daring her to open the door to her room. She does, and a silent, silly battle ensues where both the killer and victim exchange exclamations via text and text alone. Even after she’s stabbed, Chanel No. Whatever uses her last dying breaths to crawl to a computer and type out a Tweet (that’s well beyond the 140-character limit). The joke here, of course, is that she could have used her actual voice to yell for help and been saved by her sisters downstairs. On a slightly deeper level — and I am hesitant to use the “D-word” — it mocks a generation who would rather endlessly type to one another than make a simple phone call or even speak to someone right next to them.
But beyond that, it’s just not a well-constructed scene. Murphy is clearly going for parody here, as the cartoonish nature of the violence, intermittent insertion of meta humor and general easy, breezy vibes all add up to a low stakes affair that’s hoping to be more humorous than horrifying. It barely succeeds, and only because the frights are so neutered the fun has to win out.
And herein lies the true failure of “Scream Queens”: It’s too safe. The scares are safe. The jokes are safe. The style is safe. It’s an issue seen time and again when broadcast networks try to replicate the success of their cable partners, and one that’s been plaguing potential anthology offerings, as well. Creative risk has laid the groundwork for successful anthologies, from “True Detective” to Murphy’s own “American Horror Story,” and the broadcast networks are either too censored or too cautious to allow such a thing.
In the pilot episode of “American Horror Story,” a character sleeps with a man dressed in a full-leather body suit who she believes to be her husband, but the audience knows is not. The action has no immediate consequences in the narrative, but it effectively sets up the bone-chilling idea of a haunted house come to life. More importantly, it forces the audience to come to terms with their enjoyment of a scene based around rape. What did it mean when she looked up at the black body writhing on top of her with a moment of realization? Did she know it wasn’t her husband? Did she doubt it, for even a second, and think “That’s okay”? Was that the leather-suited man’s purpose, or was there more to come?
The unsettling nature of these questions made “American Horror Story” more than a nasty fright-fest, and a similar sentiment helped keep future seasons equally edgy. As is, “Scream Queens” will be lucky if it survives its first season. Murphy may not be able to tell the difference, but modern TV audiences know how to spot a fake.