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The hills are alive with the sound of music from the 1990s, as Ryan Murphy’s smart and snark-driven Scream Queens becomes the latest horror series to make a splash on our TVs. (And that’s a whole lot of blood being splashed, by the way.) We’ve got gore, self-awareness, a cut-throat sense of humor, and a killer with a memorable mask, and after watching, you’ll wonder why MTV’s Scream is the official follow-up spinoff to Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and not this. The major difference is Neve Campbell’s Sidney was just too nice for these people.
Meet Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), the self-obsessed (but secretly awkward) president of Kappa Kappa Tau, the horrendously insulting sorority at the center of this premiere season of Scream Queens. She’s such a bitch, she doesn’t even care to learn the names of her almost equally dismissive underlings – known as Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel #3 (Billie Lourde) and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin) – but she has no problem molding them to her own image. Trouble comes in two forms for Chanel, both when the notorious sisterhood is forced to take in any pledges that actually want to join, and when a serial killer arrives at the school and begins picking people off one by one, which may have ties to a murder that happened decades earlier.
Meet the motley crew of new pledges. There’s the level-headed and constantly suspicious lead Grace (Skyler Samuels), her sorta sidekick Zayday (Keke Palmer) and the neck-brace-donning Hester (Lea Michelle), along with a proto-lesbian named Mac (or Butch or something, according to Chanel) and a girl referred to as Deaf Taylor Swift, due to her being deaf and also a Taylor Swift fan. You might get the feeling that there’s something awful about this show’s cheap shots at deaf people – as well as fat people, old people, ugly people, gay people and anyone that isn’t a pristine white female – and there definitely is, but then you get the oddball reward of seeing Chanel and her clique’s lives get turned upside down by a murderer. Call it justice. Call it karma. I’m calling it interesting television for now.
Then we have the sorority’s opposition, which comes in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Dean Cathy Munsch, whom we meet through a barrage of “munch” puns. She’s a morally wavering sex pot, and it’s her idea to make Kappa Kappa Tau take on any new pledges that hare the urge to join, and that’s how we get to Chanel vs. Grace. Well, that and some other dastardly business.
In case you thought these were all of the characters populating Scream Queens, you’d be wrong, as a small cast means a small victim pool. We’ve got Glen Powell as the effortlessly douchey Chad Radwell, only the coolest guy around who is initially Chanel’s boyfriend, although that doesn’t mean he’s monogamous. Chad’s Dollar Scholars club cohort is Boone, as played with puppy dog grace by Nick Jonas. Diego Boneta is Pete Martinez, a barista and newspaper editor that tries to warn Grace of the evils of Kappa Kappa Tau. Former Saturday Night Live star Nasim Pedrad is the vapid sorority chief Gigi Caldwell. And Niecy Nash delivers some of the show’s broadest comedy as security guard Denise Hemphill, who is clearly better at doing anything else beyond keeping the sorority protected.
Scream Queens is definitely as much about tone and upending genre trappings as it is about its ensemble cast. While the characters’ harshness is sometimes off-putting, it’s balanced well by the show’s approach to the horror elements, which are rife with humor. Each of the deaths that show up early on are more funny than terrifying, at least for me, even though most are pretty drastic in nature. The jokes are more intentional than a lot of the eccentric laughs in American Horror Story, and they feel more inspired than what a lot of other series are putting out right now. I was genuinely surprised by how one-sided the laughs-to-groans ratio was.
We’ll have to wait and see if Scream Queens stays on a positive track (unlike several of Murphy’s other efforts), but even if it takes a downward turn before the season is over, it starts off high enough that it shouldn’t affect my opinion of it too much. Fox has a winner here, even if the blue ribbon has been stained red with viscera.
Get ready to see some devil knockoff costumes this Halloween, as Scream Queens will premiere on Fox on Tuesday, September 22.