The mixed-to-very-negative response generated by the first few episodes of Scream Queens, a torrent of colourful insults from critics and couch potatoes alike, is difficult to ignore. These dissenters are not some vocal minority, nor can we claim that they are somehow ‘not in on the joke’ – one of the show’s great pleasures is indeed its own cast’s lack of behind-the-curtain self awareness, so don’t expect a series peppered with eye-winking trivia and college kids doubling as horror encyclopaedias. Scream, this ain’t.
Nor is the response a knee–jerk reaction to Scream Queens’ premise or involvements, much as a new Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) show about student sororities, big bad bitches and a masked killer on campus might sound groan-worthy. No, as more episodes roll in and the critical tide refuses to turn, that rationalization falls apart just the same. Yet with no easy escape from the criticism, I find myself filled with complete certainty that I am right, they are wrong, and Scream Queens is the best new series to come along in months.
Though Murphy’s attachment has likely spurned more than a few potential viewers, I find little of his other shows’ DNA on offer here. As far removed from American Horror Story’s po-faced spook-driven storytelling as it is Glee’s preachy moral guardianship, Scream Queens is a dark campus comedy following the members and pledges of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at Wallace University, led by class-A mean girl Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), as she goes toe-to-toe with wily Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), and a killer donning a Red Devil costume who seems to be exclusively targeting members of KKT. Very 80s, then.
The show’s unstoppable, manic energy is its greatest and its most dangerous asset. The script fires off joke after joke at such pace that it hardly matters if they miss the target; your attention will already have been diverted elsewhere. This is the same approach that kept The LEGO Movie afloat (and made it a wild success) last year, though in that instance they wisely opted for a 100-minute runtime, rather than Scream Queens’ eventual 600.
At this early stage, it’s anyone’s guess whether Murphy and co. can keep it up. The speed hasn’t dragged over the first three episodes, and yet to get through twelve more without faltering seems wishful thinking — the spell hasn’t broken yet, though, and it’s worth the investment in a show which has been such a complete joy to watch, week-on-week.
I can’t say I’m generally someone who harbours guilty pleasures, and I’d be loathe to tag Scream Queens as such. The college murder mystery setting does not make it trashy, and the seemingly shallow, bitchy characters do not make it even slightly vapid or unworthy. I watch the series for its witty, snappy script and dynamite cast, not because it’s a decent way to fill an hour. And I hope that Scream Queens can, against the odds perhaps, continue this superb run through the rest of its first season.