There’s Shondaland. There’s J.J. Abrams. And then there’s Ryan Murphy. Chalk it up to his brand of humor, his magnetism towards media sensationalism, and inclination towards the disturbing. From Popular to Nip/Tuck, Glee to American Horror Story, fine, even the short lived The New Normal, there’s a kind of palatability to Ryan’s work – what would otherwise be a discomforting hotbed of racial, gender or underdog slurs turned pop cultural phenomenon. If there’s an ‘it’ to that invisible thing that gets people talking and watching (at least for one season before it all goes awry), then he’s definitely got it. The Ryan Murphy streak continues in FOX’s newest hit series, Scream Queens.
I’m three episodes in, courtesy of that thing called download. And while it’s panning out to be quite the disjointed, mean-spirited, overly stylized, self-involved, eye-candy Heathers meets Halloween horror-comedy progenitor (not really. See: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc.) it makes itself to be, there’s something about it that, while it doesn’t feel as organic, keeps you coming back for more. Like on the subject of Download Wednesdays, my hierarchy of want would prioritize Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris over Scream Queens. How very odd.
Maybe it’s Ryan Murphy’s body of work, in which you will all his projects with every nerve of your being to succeed. There is good intention there but as the saying goes, “The road to hell…” Or maybe because Scream Queens is something you hadn’t quite seen on TV just yet, at least on the surface courtesy of its packaging (50% of the achievement unlocked). But when it boils down to the basic tenets of storytelling, it’s always better to have three-dimensional, multi-layered characters telling stories than caricatures and sensationalism.
But without giving away too much, when the show goes all out with absurdity and 90s nostalgia, there is brilliance to be mined there. The saying “go big or go home” couldn’t be more true.
The premise follows that there’s a red devil on the loose, plaguing the members of top college sorority KKT, threatening the lives of their members, friends, and pledges, one stab or lawnmower scuffle after another. The structure hearkens back to Halloween or even Scream where a token ‘final girl’ is established to rise above all odds – and if lucky, have her leading man in tow, galoshes and all. So expect to say sayonara to someone in every episode but maybe not in a Game of Thrones sort of way because it’s Ryan Murphy and he does have his favorites.
In Scream Queens, mean is key as is misdirection and ironically, the ‘final girl’ pales in comparison to the head bitch in charge. In the matter of Grace (Skyler Samuels) vs. Chanel (Emma Roberts), the ‘final girl’ is no Sidney Prescott so you end up rooting for, I don’t know, whoever Courtney Cox played in Scream. You get the point.
What the show lacks in logic and coherence though (I mean it is two genres rolled into one so it’s hard to balance the scale), it more than makes up for with its 90s references, fashion, and campiness (when done right). Chanel’s closet is signature Clueless. And what Chanel and her minions wear have quite possibly become the new fashion zeitgeist, the same way that American Horror Story: Coven gave all-black its sexy back. Similarly, a twitter exchange between the Red Devil and one of his (or her) potential victims in the first episode makes for one of the series’ most memorable moments. In a way, it reveals much about the millennial mindset (who I am assuming is the audience Ryan Murphy is targeting), in which virtual correspondence has trumped actual talking or doing things. Then there’s the TLC Waterfalls rager while someone’s life was literally on the edge. But without giving away too much, when the show goes all out with absurdity and 90s nostalgia, there is brilliance to be mined there. The saying “go big or go home” couldn’t be more true.
The Murphy worshipper in me though can’t help but draw similarities between Scream Queens and Ryan’s previous shows. This one seems to be a mishmash of his work on Popular, American Horror Story, and Glee (well, Lea Michele makes a TV comeback as neck brace-clad Hester). Chanel is a cross between Glee’s Quinn Fabray and Popular’s Mary Cherry, only more fashionable and less likable. And Skyler Samuels’ wan performance reminds me of Taissa Farmiga’s Zoe in American Horror Story: Coven. Speaking of which, the double timeline and flashbacks reek of AHS, only less Marie Laveau in the 1800s but more TLC in the late 90s. Again, it’s a case of showrunner trying too hard and managing the expectations of his many talents but it begs the question: are his actors necessarily the best people for the job?
Thankfully, this question is far from the considerations and realm of the erudite Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays Dean Cathy Munsch. Her character sets off on an agenda to make the lives of KKT hell by requiring them to accept all pledges and in the bigger picture destroy their mean girl charter that has persisted all these years. Thirsty Tita of this thrilla holds the fort together alongside the other truly comical characters in the show, OG sorority girl Gigi Caldwell (Nasim Pedrad) and hilarious security guard Denise Hemphill (Niecy Nash).
Like I said, there’s gold to be mined there (ironically among the fossils and not the teenagers) but along the way, it gets lost in Sturm und Drang of Ryan Murphy sensationalism. In Tagalog, “masyadong papansin.” Pasabog over libog, the latter of which you can unleash, only with good storytelling and master class acting. Do I recommend it for people to watch? Yes. I leave it up to you to make your own judgments. But it just disturbs me that this is the kind of sh*t that will define the humor and simultaneous dreams of a new generation who grew up watching TV (this is free TV after all) and might not have seen Ryan Murphy’s previous, more thoughtful work – when he was less about stars and progenies, and more about stories in the road less traveled. If case you were wondering, Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas are in this too.
Let’s hope this show finds its stride along the way. It is only three (now four) episodes in after all. A lot more can happen. In the meantime, we wait with bated breath for its big sis, American Horror Story: Hotel to premiere, headlined by the one and only Lady Gaga. Here we go again. A world in which Lady Gaga and Jessica Lange are talked about in the same vein. Only Ryan Murphy.