Scream Queens: “Pilot” / “Hell Week” Series Premiere Review

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Get ready for your newest TV obsession.

One of my favorite horror movies actually isn’t all that scary. Sure, it features a masked killer picking off his victims one by one with an oversized, serrated blade, but its thrills really derive from wit more than a sense of dread.

I’m referring, of course, to the late, great Wes Craven’s Scream—and the majority of its sequels. Scream doesn’t succeed on its ability to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, but rather it triumphs in its keen self-awareness and referential-humor. It’s refreshing, exciting, and downright funny to watch a group of kids raised on classic slasher films fall prey to the very tropes that have been ingrained in their heads for years. Scream might not have the prestige of The Shining or the gore of Evil Dead, but it holds a special place in my heart. It’s silliness is calculated, and it sure as hell isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself.

Scream spawned a number of “too-cool-to-be-scared” imitations, and even a lackluster series on MTV, but there hasn’t yet been a horror story that’s been able to match it’s unique brand of sensationalism…until now, that is.

Scream Queens, from Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, is an ode to slasher films of the 80s and 90s in the best, campiest way possible. The usual horror tropes are all on display in the two-hour premiere—a virginal, good-girl heroine, lazy, inefficient police officers—but due to the show’s devilishly subversive nature, they’re hardly presented in a straightforward manner.

Another popular archetype that Scream Queens borrows heavily from is the school mean girl from films like HeathersJawbreaker, and, well, Mean Girls. Taking place at the fictional Wallace University, the series features Chanel (an excellently cast Emma Roberts) and her band of minions—also all named Chanel—as the hell-in-heels president of the Kappa House sorority. Chanel is ruthless, racist, materialistic, and extremely self-involved. The pilot episode hints at some deep-seated loneliness, but for now she’s clearly the show’s main antagonist.

Yet, this being a Ryan Murphy production, she’s far more interesting than nice-girl Grace (Skylar Samuels) who plans to return Kappa to the former glory it held when her deceased mother was a member. Oh, by the way, her mother may or may not have died in the sorority house 20 years earlier…but more on that in a bit. Murphy and co. use Chanel, Grace, and others, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’ hilarious Dean Munsch as a savvy way to highlight the more insane aspects of our current society.

It will surely make many viewers uncomfortable when Chanel does things like call her maid “White Mammy” and make her quote Prissy in Gone with the Wind–-also, weird that kids in 2015 would reference that movie, but that’s neither here nor there—but perhaps that’s the point. Scream Queens thrives on making viewers squirm in order to make them think.

Why do we laugh when Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande, in a fun bit of stunt casting) is murdered by a mysterious killer in a red devil costume while trying to send a tweet, but later gasp when deaf pledge Tiffany (Whitney Meyer) gets decapitated by a lawn mower? Sure, one is clearly more ridiculous than the other, but either way, two girls are dead. Scream Queens‘ satire isn’t as overt as the Scream franchise—what with its laying out of the “rules” of horror films—but its ability to challenge our expectations is nothing short of brilliant.

A pivotal moment arrives when Munsch is forced to address the student body after the lawnmower incident, and notes via voiceover that the tearful, concerned-looking students in the background are likely just hanging around due to their own self-interest. Lest you think this show is all a serious social commentary, however, this same woman is previously seen sleeping with one of her students with a joint in hand. If there’s any message to be found here, it’s that everyone is a little selfish, and that everyone—and I do mean, EVERYONE—has something they’re hiding.

This suits the show well, as the first two hours explore a mystery that dates back to 1995 when one of the Kappa pledges mysteriously died after giving birth to a child during a house party. Cut to 2015, and the school seems to have all but forgotten about that incident, except for the lurking Red Devil who begins to off members of Wallace’s greek life one by one.

Both “Pilot” and “Hell Week” present a slew of characters that have potential motives for being behind the one mask. Everyone from the obvious choice of Chanel, to the seemingly friendly barista/reporter Pete (Diego Boneta), to the clean-cut and closeted Boone (Nick Jonas, doing a pitch-perfect sendup of bro culture) could potentially have blood on their hands.

Grace appears to be the show’s Sydney Prescott, but episodes’ incendiary nature makes me think she could be too good to be true. Joining her in the fight, however, are her roommate Zayday (a spirited Keke Palmer), and fellow pledges like Jennifer (Breezy Eslin) and Hester (Lea Michele, miles away from Glee‘s Rachel Berry). These girls are presented as misfits, yet the subtle societal critiques they provide are both on-point and gut-bustingly funny. Hester, in particular, gets some truly hilarious one-liners once her obsession with death is revealed.

The genius of Scream Queens, though, is that, like Scream before it, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s smart, for sure, but it’s not here to break new ground. Neither does it exist to just be American Horror Story-lite (trust me, several scenes will make you question how this got on network television). Rather, the show’s goal appears to be this: telling a compelling story that’s simultaneously able to make us laugh and poke holes in what we’re laughing at. There’s some fascinating characters and a juicy sense of suspense along for the ride as well. It’s all just so much fun, I could scream. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Of all the winking nods and pop culture references the premiere has, my favorite has to be Chanel No. 3’s earmuffs. She is played by Billie Lourd who is daughter to Carrie Fischer aka Princess Leia, so you know those muffs aren’t there just because it’s cold out.
  • Emma Roberts may start to get typecasted after playing both this and Madison Montgomery on American Horror Story: Coven, but I really don’t care. Her performance is incredible and she steals just about every scene. Also,  all her outfits are so over the top and I love it.
  • Boone’s relationship with Chad (Glen Powell) is seriously the best, even though Chad is a total douche and Boone may or may not be a killer. Seriously, though, those two are the best bros.
  • “Can I call you mom?” “What? No!” “Mom, wait….” I already love Hester a million times more than Rachel Berry (sorry Glee fans).
  • Ariana Grande, er, Chanel No. 2’s murder scene is actually so fantastic. It’s the perfect moment of lunacy.
  • Predictions for how this mystery will unfold: Grace’s mom is the girl who died in the bathtub, Nasim Pedrad’s Gigi is the killer—she’s just way too sweet—and Dean Munsch is the one who set this plan in motion. I’m 100% positive that this will all be thrown out the window by next week.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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