My list of new fall shows to watch is increasingly revealing itself to be a list of wishful thinking. Following “Minority Report” and “Blindspot,” “Scream Queens” (9 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on Fox) makes it a perfect 0 for 3. But whereas those first two shows are destined to be forgotten, “Scream Queens” will likely be talked about for years to come, even if it’s quickly canceled. Love or it hate it (I’m firmly in the latter category), there’s never been anything like this on TV.
You’ve seen the ubiquitous previews by now: A sorority house is mandated to take any and all pledges, to the disgust of Chanel (Emma Roberts), and meanwhile, a devil-masked killer is on the loose on campus. But as straightforward as that premise is, it doesn’t do justice to how empty this show is.
“Scream Queens” is the ultimate distillation of a Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk property in the way it places “Hey, look at how far we’re pushing the envelope!” writing above all other concerns. For example, Chanel calls Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) “box Munsch,” forcing us to wonder how Fox allowed that phrase on TV. A teen has a baby in a bathtub at a party, and all her friends would rather dance to “Waterfalls,” forcing us to think about how they crapped on both human decency and – by making it part of the gag — one of the best songs of 1995.
I found the early episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” to be crazy and fun, but those shows hit the law of diminishing returns after a couple seasons as the showmanship clearly outpaced the characters. I – like most, but certainly not all, TV viewers — need to feel somewhat connected to the characters; a show can’t only be glitz (even when the song covers, in a vacuum, are great pieces of pop entertainment) or shock value. “Scream Queens” makes mild stabs at likable characters: Grace (Skyler Samuels from “The Nine Lives of Chloe King”) wants to join KKT because her mother was once part of the sorority. And school newspaper editor Pete (Diego Boneta) suspects there’s something fishy about that particular sorority.
“Scream Queens” has mystery, horror and broad archetypes, and none of it amounts to anything. It was once common to describe TV as a vast wasteland; those of us who love TV know that’s an unfair statement, as there has always been wheat among the chaff. But “Scream Queens” plays like Murphy’s and Falchuk’s vision of what a TV show would look like if the medium truly were a wasteland. Make no mistake: The creators did not accidentally create a bad show in “Scream Queens”; they did so on purpose. As a piece of watchable entertainment, it’s awful and makes me depressed for the sake of all humanity; but as a piece of art, it will fascinate many.
Even though statements like “Chanel is utterly unlikable” and “There is no sense of suspense or horror to the killings” are fair critical statements, they also miss the point because there is no doubt that Chanel is purposely detestable and the killings purposely land with a thud. The hollowness of “Scream Queens” is the natural next step for showrunners who have always found producing TV entertainment to be somewhat of a crazy game, where you play with game pieces and game boards rather than people and places.
“Scream Queens” is not merely a jab at sororities, it is a jab at movie parodies of sororities. Everything originates from reality – there certainly are sheltered, self-centered people such as Chanel who make horrifying scenes in coffeeshops when their drink isn’t made to perfection – but every scene exists at least three steps beyond reality.
Similarly, “Scream Queens” is not merely a horror spoof, it’s a spoof of horror spoofs. The scene of Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande) being killed by the devil-masked villain is clever: The victim and villain communicate by texting each other from 3 feet apart; then, as life drains from her, she writes a Facebook post that she’s being killed. There’s no sense that this scene exists in any sort of real or even fictional world; it only exists as a funny concept on paper. The idea of girls being buried up to their necks and then murdered with a lawnmower is a good concept for a horror movie or even a horror spoof, but there’s zero suspense or surprise to it here; it’s telegraphed and rendered rote.
Here’s the overall problem: There’s no context to “Scream Queens” beyond the parody. I don’t mean that the plot doesn’t make sense, because it does. I don’t mean that the characters aren’t distinct, because they are. I don’t mean the series is pointless, because the artistic messages will be talked about by people who love this type of program.
I mean that every moment of “Scream Queens” is an intentional joke. By design, Murphy and Falchuk don’t intend to give us any reason to care in the traditional sense of caring about a TV serial narrative. But whether it’s purposeful or not, the end result is the same: I don’t have any reason to keep watching this show. May those of you whose tastes run in a different direction continue to enjoy it.