Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pilot watch: Fox's SCREAM QUEENS

Thursday, 24 September 2015


What's the premise? Scream Queens is a new horror-comedy anthology series from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, who between them created Glee and American Horror Story. This first season concerns a serial killer targeting university students; particularly the young ladies of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority.

Who's in it? A lot of currently-famous, not-so-famous, and once-famous people. The star of the show is Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) as the sorority's egotistical queen bee, Chanel Oberlin. Lea Michele (Glee) plays a 'pledge' with scoliosis nicknamed Neckbrace, while a now-teenage Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is one of Chanel's clique. For older audiences, Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Dean Cathy Munsch, whose early performances in 1980s horrors like Halloween and The Fog helped coin the term 'Scream Queen' to begin with.

Other cast members include Skyler Samuels (The Gates), Glen Powell, Mexican singer-actor Diego Boneta, singer-actress Keke Palmer, Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnold), Nashville's Oliver Hudson (son of Goldie Hawn), Roger Bart (Hostel: Part II), Niecey Nash (hilarious as an inept security guard assigned to keep the campus safe), Nasim Pedrad, Nick Jonas (of Jonas Brothers fame), and Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher). Oh, and pop star Ariana Grande appears—although it's no surprise she doesn't last long. She has songs to sing.

What are your first impressions? Having only seen this show's first two episodes, I must say I found Scream Queens very entertaining. It wasn't even remotely scary, which was slightly disappointing, but how can it be when the tone straddles the quip-laden comedy of Glee and a slasher spoof like Scary Movie?

The characters are camp parodies of the American college archetypes we've seen zillions of times before, which undercuts the show's attempts to be genuinely scary, although I wasn't too concerned about this flaw. Horror is either horrifying or fun, and Scream Queens attacks the funnybone more than the jugular.

I enjoyed a sequence where three girls (buried to their necks under a lawn as part of a Hell Week initiation), are blissfully unaware they've become easy prey for the killer to decapitate them using a ride-on mower. What made it for me was seeing how one deaf girl—known as Deaf Taylor Swift—couldn't tell if her friends were screaming or just singing to pass some time... but opted for the latter and started an inappropriate sing-a-long as the demon grass-cutter closed in.

As usual with many murder-mystery tales (most recently Scream: The Series), there's a tragic and important history to current events to untangle, too—one which holds the key to unmasking the 'Red Devil' killer. 20 years ago, a teenage girl died after giving birth to a baby during an epic sorority party, and legend has it Dean Munsch helped cover up the unfortunate incident. Has her orphaned baby grown up, seeking revenge on the campus that claimed its mother's life? There are lots of red herrings to keep you guessing the killer's identity, as you'd expect—involving people's age and preferences for 1995 power ballads. Place your bets. My guess is the baby angle's a red herring itself, and someone else has a better reason for killing students. Maybe the dead mother's mother or father?

Enjoying these opening episodes of Scream Queens comes with a caveat, however. The Murphy-Falchuk-Brennan triumvirate have a tendency to craft very good TV show ideas that fall into monotony very quickly. The fact Scream Queens is an anthology drama means this particular story will end after just one season (so it'll avoid Glee's embarrassment of limping along years after it peaked), but Murphy and Falchuk's American Horror Story works to the same format and that show's seasons also get stupider as they go along.

I can't help suspecting Scream Queens will follow a similarly slow nosedive, unless lessons have been learned from AHS or Brennan's influence prevents that. At least the writers can't rely on being gross and outrageously shocking to keep viewers hooked, because there's only so far they can push the envelope on a mainstream network like Fox. In this case, the restrictions of non-cable TV may actually work in their favour, if it breeds invention to compensate from lazy shock tactics.

What's the prognosis? I predict Scream Queens will be a modest hit. But a lot rests on how successfully its remaining episodes keep the momentum of the story going and developing, and if the balance of comedy to scares improves. There's a scene where one girl's interaction with the unseen killer by text messaging continues the moment she's face-to-face with the psycho tormenting her, and yet she still continues to converse with him through her iPhone. Was that funny? Sort of. Was it a statement on modern teens and their reliance on, and obsession with, social media? Of course. But the joke also evaporated tension and any genuine potential to be scared along with it.

I think Scream Queens needs to be edgier for me to completely love it, but maybe going for mischievousness and dumb laughs is wise because it's more accessible to scaredy-cats?

It's just not really a slasher, though, is it? It's a rib tickler.

When did it premiere? Yesterday on Fox. E4 have bought the UK rights now, and will show it this autumn. My guess is around Halloween.