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Scream Queens is stylish, sour, and needlessly spiteful

Performative, knowing prejudice isn't any funnier than the real kind

Matthias Clamer/Fox

There’s a very good chance that Scream Queens is going to lose a chunk of its viewers just a few minutes into the show’s two-hour opener, when vile sorority queen Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) excoriates the house maid. "That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean," hisses Roberts. "I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave." Welcome to Kappa Kappa Tau!

There are moments in which Scream Queens feels less like a TV show than an endurance test. I stuck it out past poor Ms. Bean’s first humiliation, but I lost track of all the times I was tempted to bail before the credits rolled. Was it the moment where two hunky fraternity members — one played by Nick Jonas, an eye locked on his next gay club appearance fee — debated the possibility of one (gay) touching the other’s (straight) weiner during an impromptu cuddle session? (Maybe this was supposed to be some kind of hat-tip toward pernicious homosocial anxiety, but it ends up making the gay character look like a pitiful, closeted quasi-predator.)

Or was it the scene where Roberts greets Keke Palmer’s Zayday, the sorority’s lone black pledge, by sweetly cooing, "Hello, hoodrat. Sweet Yeezus, I don’t even know where to begin with you!" (She fetches white eyeliner for writing on her skin a few seconds later.) In any case, I left the show with two lingering questions: Were these bits of imagery and pieces of dialogue supposed to be funny? And who’s going to be laughing?

Scream Queens is the latest product being pushed out of the Ryan Murphy / Brad Falchuk / Ian Brennan TV factory, following in the footsteps of Nip/Tuck, Glee, and sundry American Horror Stories. It’s pitched somewhere between the latter two: what studio head wouldn’t greenlight a fusion of Glee’s razor-sharp barbs, rapid pace, and chokehold on the zeitgeist with AHS’s low-grade scares and anthology format? It has the veneer of a bold move — a commitment to camp and full-bore silliness by a post-Empire Fox — but its underpinnings are conventional: Glee was a borderline sensation during its first few seasons, and AHS is a critically respected show with a loyal fan base and a thwack of Emmy nominations. As edgy as it strains to be, there’s nothing at risk here.

Emma Roberts is a "Surprise, bitch" GIF brought to life

And it really isn’t hard to imagine it becoming the kind of sensation Murphy & co. are no doubt imagining: the plot is brisk, the action is pulpy, and the performances are as juicy as anything this side of Cookie Lyon’s manicure. Roberts is terror incarnate as the sorority’s chief, a "Surprise, bitch" GIF brought to life. For her, delivering these lines is like tackling one of those giant novelty burgers you get a T-shirt for eating at dive bars. Success or failure is beyond the point — there’s joy in the attempt.

Jamie Lee Curtis is perfectly calibrated as Wallace University’s vengeful, unsatisfied dean; she built a career, of course, playing variations on the titular scream queens, and the fun she’s having is palpable. Palmer and Skyler Samuels give the show something like a heart, albeit one that feels about an inch away from being ripped out and eaten at any given moment. The men are all sex objects and cardboard cutouts, which is fine.

Murphy and Falchuk directed an hour each, and regardless of your personal taste for their work, their skill as visual stylists cannot be denied. Murphy’s camera tracks Roberts and her lackeys stomping down a hallway and turns her into a lioness on the hunt; Ariana Grande, serviceable and completely perfunctory, has a flirty text back-and-forth with her soon-to-be killer while they stand in front of each other, a great bit of tomfoolery. Falchuk navigates a porny Nick Jonas workout sequence with licked lips, and it says more about lust and vanity and menacing sexuality than the rest of the show combined.

emma roberts clique scream queens

Steve Dietl/Fox

And that’s the main problem with Scream Queens: 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.

Lazy writing masquerading as lazier social commentary

There’s something sinister about Murphy and friends’ insistence that it’s okay to dive into the reprehensible because we’re all supposed to know they don’t mean it. Their other work has danced on this line before ending up on the right side of it. Glee victimized its marginalized characters, but it rendered their ultimate redemptions more dramatic. Horrible things happen in the various American Horror Stories, but they’re working in service of larger thematic interests: discrimination, control, infidelity. When Roberts’ character states that she can get away with anything because she’s white, pretty, and rich, it’s lazy writing masquerading as even lazier social commentary. And who knows: by Scream Queens’ end, maybe she’ll be proven wrong; ridiculous, riotous death doesn’t recognize race or class. I’m not sure I have the stomach to stick around and find out.