'Scream Queens' is as much a horror show as 'Glee' was a series about high school
My favorite junk food is Cheez-It crackers, those little orange squares of baked cheesy goodness. They meet my Top Two junk food criteria. One, they’re salty. (Sweet is not always complementary with booze.) Second, they’re not nutritional or substantial. Eating them won’t get you all muscled and swole, and despite the label’s insistence, I question their actual cheese composition. But I’m happy to blindly inhale a box without thinking. In fact, thinking is pretty much the opposite of what junk food is all about.
When watching TV, I often feel the same about my program choices. I love a healthy meal that nourishes me, or shows like “Fargo” that are emotionally and intellectually challenging. But sometimes, when I’m tired of figuring things out and having to relate, all I want is a good junk-food series. I want a show like FOX’s “Scream Queens.” Brought to us by Ryan Murphy – who also gave us “Glee” and “American Horror Story” – “Scream Queens” is Murphy’s reframing of clichéd slasher films about college sororities and serial killers wreaking havoc on campus.
Sound scary? It’s not. “Scream Queens” is as much a horror show as “Glee” was a series about high school. It’s actually a broad comedy that gleefully (sorry) snatches bits from great movie thrillers of the past; think “Scream” with a heavy dose of “Heathers” thrown in. There’s not much of a plot and what little there is makes no sense. Instead, we’re served super-doses of snark and nonstop meta irony – much of it possibly sailing right over our heads. For example, one professor ends every class by saying “See you next Tuesday.” It’s shiny and pretty, and it gets super-salty but you can’t just eat one.
In large part, “Scream Queens’’” success is due to sharp comedic acting. Jamie Lee Curtis was brought on board to pointedly reference her genre chops from the “Halloween” franchise. Here, she plays Cathy Munsch, the bitter, controlling dean of students who storms around in glamorous pant suits. She’s the perfect elder stateswoman for the cast and her DGAF attitude to the constant murders makes it all look like great fun.
Murphy alum Lea Michele is also having a blast. On “Glee,” Michele played a precocious theater geek who managed to overact high school drama, which is no small feat. Here, however, all Michele’s “Glee” sins are atoned for as she hilariously portrays new sorority rush Hester Ulrich. She deserves mad props for her willingness to break out and play a true psychopath – not just one who plays the lead in “Funny Girl.”
Emma Roberts remains sharply on point as Chanel Oberlin, the diva president of Kappa Kappa Tau sorority, and her innumerable costumes need their own Twitter feed toot sweet. My personal fave is Billie Lourd as one of Oberlin’s ladies in waiting, numerically anointed Chanel #3. She brings the perfect amount of droll Chloe Sevigny-ness while always inexplicably wearing fur earmuffs. She blithely compliments one of the sorority’s new rushes, an ambiguous lesbian, telling her that her “whole Samantha Ronson thing is dope.”
None of this is subtle, nor does it ever try to be. Murphy molds his show’s characters into caricatures and then keeps on pushing. They often say outlandish, very un-PC things and nothing anyone says or does comes off very well. But make no mistake, Murphy is acutely aware of what his characters are doing, and he knows how to digest the empty calories of pop culture and use them to test boundaries. Furthermore he banks on viewers being aware that he’s aware. He wants you in on the joke – to snicker at the Samantha Ronson line because you get that throwaway connection, that junk-food gossip. The audience becomes enchanted. We bask in the glow of how clever we all are, gorging ourselves on cheese crackers as we sit giggling at the teevee.
Hugh Elliott is an artist and writer living in California. Find him on Twitter @wehogayman.