Scream Queens Like most relationships, it was the group orgy that signalled the end. “I’d rather focus my attention on getting spit-roasted by hot golf-frat twins,” cried Abigail Breslin mere minutes into week three of FOX’s Scream Queens. “I got Eiffel-towered by two hot morons who are brothers, and now I’m out.” There was something about the moment, whether it was Breslin’s stiff delivery or the bold-italic-double-underline ‘outrage’ of the dialogue, that felt like a death knell. Provocation has been a regular cast member for all the Ryan Murphy oeuvre –this was a man that once cast the girl from Little House on the Prairie as a woman whose nipples were torn off while having sex with her dog, so it’s not unprecedented–, but for the first time in his lengthy television career, the entire enterprise had cratered in. Not so much because of the dialogue itself, but more because of the sheer teeth-gritting, eye-rolling try of the whole thing. It was no longer trashy, easily-digestible watercooler TV. It was an embarrassment.
Scream Queens opens with the mysterious death of a sorority girl in 1995 and the subsequent disappearance of her secret baby. Flash forward to 2015 and a serial killer known as the Red Devil is on the loose in the same anonymous college town, targeting members of the same sorority house and their various hangers-on. Suspects include the new girl in town, her sassy black friend, a Jonas brother, a woman psychologically stuck in the 1990’s, and the farting campus security guard determined to save the day. The far majority of the characters, including our de facto final girl, are either killers or accessories to murder, and the soundtrack is made up of a parade of ’80s pop.
None of this should come as a surprise for long-time viewers of the Ryan Murphy Experience. Popular, his late-’90s series debut, played like Dawson’s Creek on Czechoslovakian organ-slimming pills, while his plastic-surgery drama Nip/Tuck gave the traditional night-time soap a glamorous, millennial sheen, full of murderers, porn stars and femme fatales. Glee, as hard as it is to remember a version of that show that wasn’t dripping in sanctimony and narrative dead-ends, was at one point in time must-see television, a blend of high-camp musical numbers and Tracy Flick mania.
In some ways Scream Queens is a throwback to something like Popular, a nutty tonal mish-mash as expensive and as bitchy and as gay as the day is long. But, unlike Popular‘s central theme of traditional high school politics, it features nothing to offset the crazy, and instead of featuring interesting character actors like Leslie Grossman or Tammy Lynn Michaels, we have Lea Michele turning from a stage-five clinger in a neckbrace to a randy necrophiliac after a quick makeover. Even Jamie Lee Curtis, initially presented as Scream Queens‘ Jessica Lange figure –a ballsy, sexual older woman with no time for bratty youths–, has rapidly morphed into a cartoon, slithering around the show like a cat in heat. Everything and everyone is all ham, all the time. More importantly, nobody has been given room to breathe.
In spite of all Ryan Murphy’s work following the exact same cliff-edge plunge routine after an initially promising start, we keep coming back to his series because of that strong early foundation. Something like Nip/Tuck remained infinitely watchable because there existed strong characters to anchor it. They were at one point fleshed-out and interesting, actual humans that have somehow stumbled into a world of heightened reality, even if the madness ultimately eclipsed them. Even Glee, arguably the Murphy series most unrecognisable in its later years in comparison to its early episodes, opened with a gentle, engaging optimism, populated by people you recognised, if not entirely identified with. But without that humanity, the sense that you’re watching anyone real, there’s nothing to see besides idle batshit. Television needs to earn its crazy.
It remains to be seen whether there is some elaborate method to this madness. Maybe the reason the entire cast is foaming-at-the-mouth insane is that they’re all in fact the Red Devil – all individually taking advantage of a local urban legend to settle old grudges of fluctuating importance. It’d be oddly impressive. Though maybe that’s giving Scream Queens too much credit. But then surely it can’t only exist to showcase Emma Roberts hurling racial slurs, or to have the kid from Little Miss Sunshine extol graphic twincest. Ryan Murphy could never be that cynical… right?
Scream Queens knows its audience. It’s built for speedy consumption, counts allegedly famous vloggers among its recurring cast, and seems to have taken the ‘if it can be GIF’d, let’s put it on TV’ approach to storytelling. But it clashes horribly with the additional attempts on the writers’ part to mount an elaborate murder mystery, one that rests on character motivation, generation-hopping backstories and willing audience investment. Great writing can scale that mountain, but so far the show has been inherently directionless, bouncing between supposedly important mythology and incongruous, ultimately irrelevant comedy set pieces that feel lazy and dated. Scream Queens doesn’t know if it wants to be a television series or a meme. Right now, odds are on the latter.