Scream Queens: “Haunted House” Season 1 Episode 4 Review

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Scream Queens‘ two-part Halloween special starts off with an episode that goes all over the place.Quick show of hands. Who here is actually watching Scream Queens for the mystery? You, in the back? Okay, well, that’s a little weird.

I started Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series with loose intents on discovering who was behind the red devil mask, but slowly gave up interest as the show fully ensconced itself in its macabre/absurdist aesthetic. This isn’t a bad thing, by any means. At this point, just about anyone could be the killer, and the truth is it doesn’t really matter. Scream Queens isn’t a hard-boiled thriller poised to expose the evils of man—the evils of frat boys, maybe, but not man in general—it’s a fun, sexy, campy thriller that spoofs many of our society’s more ridiculous tendencies.

That’s why I’m far more interested in the show’s characters than I am in the actual plot. What’s unfortunate about “Haunted House,” is that it does its best to make its cast more multidimensional, but since these people are already so over-the-top, any additional layering only creates confusion.

A lot of the characters this week have “statement dialogue,” which is something that’s always irked me about Ryan Murphy’s shows. He’s clearly a man with a lot to say, and that’s fine, but there’s a way to weave important messages into a story, and a way to turn your characters into walking, talking PSAs. On Glee, Kurt Hummel’s character slowly transformed from a complex and layered young man into a soapbox for the show’s LGBT issue of the week. I’m not saying that these issues aren’t important—they certainly are—but podium moments like these often dehumanize the characters, turning them from people into mouthpieces. That’s lazy storytelling, because, as any writer knows, it’s always better to show than to tell.

This week’s episode opens with Chanel celebrating “Chanel-O-Ween” an annual tradition where she sends her social media fans—portrayed here as desperate sad-sacks—“gifts” as a sort of thank you for following her online exploits. The entire idea is a parody of pop culture fandoms and their obsessive interactions with various celebrities (Taylor Swift’s “Swiftmas” immediately comes to mind).

It’s clear that this a self-congratulatory moment for Chanel; her way of doing good during a holiday season. It’s pretty hilarious to watch one girl exclaim “this box is just filled with blood!” as if she’d just received the newest iPhone. Yet, this is where the show’s mean-spirited satire gets a little confusing. The sequence certainly makes fun of how highly Chanel thinks of herself, but isn’t it also making fun of these so-called loser fans for craving her attention so desperately?

I’m not really sure what the message is here, and I only bring up messages because this episode is full of them. Earl Grey (Lucien Laviscount) gives an important speech about the collegiate Greek System to Zayday while trying to convince her to run for Kappa President. Chad gives a speech about millennials that’s a surprising deviation from his character. The biggest moment, of course, arrives in a feminist brawl in the cafeteria where Hester leads the other Chanels in a fight against catcalling and general misogyny.

This last sequence is especially baffling. Is it totally badass? Of course. But it seems to exist in a world of its own. Had Zayday and Grace delivered these blows to the token cafeteria douchebags, it would’ve made more sense. Why have the series’ most hateful characters suddenly take up an important social cause? Aren’t the Chanels supposed to represent retrograde feminism with their vapid attitudes and exclusionary practices? Why are they suddenly crusaders for women’s rights?

If this is Murphy’s attempt to color these characters in different shades, then it was poorly conceived. There are better, and subtler ways to give characters depth. Chanel’s brief cry for help during her lunch with Grace in the premiere is a good example. It’s a short scene, but it does well to highlight a lot about her need to control things. The fight scene is nonsense, and not in a good way.

What I mean by that is, it appears this episode is trying to do two opposing things at once: be an absurdist comedy and also a serious statement piece. But you can’t joke around and take yourself seriously at the same time. Genuinely funny scenes like Hester and Chad’s unfortunate romp through the haunted house, or the flashback to Denise’s attempt to pledge Kappa—which is actually both funny and heartbreaking, but mostly funny because of Niecy Nash’s committed performance—are marred by these “important” speeches the characters give. I do think comedy can have a serious message—just look at the brilliant sketches Inside Amy Schumer has put on this year—but this is not the way to go about it. It’s hard to know what we’re really supposed to be paying attention to when everything is delivered with a sly wink.

I have hope for next week, however, because Scream Queens ended things on an exciting note. Zayday has been kidnapped and the show’s Halloween fest will continue with a Kappa pumpkin patch. Not that either of these things actually matter for the narrative, but they seem like good setups for some great horror-comedy. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn into another lecture. Grade: C+

 

Some Other Notes:

  • So quick recap on the plot for the few of you paying attention: Dean Munsch actually helped the Kappa girls bury the body back in the 90s, but no one knows what happened to the baby. A mysterious “Hag of Shady Lane” might have taken care of it…also that hag is secretly Gigi.
  • I don’t know about you guys, but Hester saying “attack my crack” made me burst out laughing pretty hard. Lea Michele is really nailing her role.
  • I really hope Zayday does run for president, because a Zayday/Chanel showdown sounds amazing. She just needs to, like, not be kidnapped first.
  • Last week I mentioned that Denise’s character was a bit overbearing, but she really grew on me in this episode. Her monologue talking to her dead friend Shondell was hilarious, especially since she was surrounded by other people and no one interrupted her.
  • Diego Boneta’s favorite movie is How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but his Matthew McConaughey impersonation is…not so good.
  • Can someone please explain to me why Grace continues to wear these pageboy caps? I do not find them stylish at all, and they make her look like she’s from a different time period than everyone else. Is that the point?
  • Current theory on who the killer is: Oh, I don’t know, Wes? He’s a pretty terrible film professor so he’s probably not making lesson plans in his spare time.
  • “It’s for the fundraiser. We’re trying to raise money.” “More like raise the bodycount. With murder.”

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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