Thursday, November 17, 2016

SCREAM QUEENS: A Bloody Mess of Good Fun

Comedy and horror are two distinct genres, each with its own formulas and structures, devices and characteristic stylings. Blending the two is tricky stuff and, inevitably, one genre proves dominant when this hybrid model is attempted. In the SCARY MOVIE franchise, for example, comedy is the dominant genre at play, with the laughs outnumbering – even overshadowing – any frights. Conversely, in the films of the SCREAM franchise, scares trump the laughs in equal measure. 

So when Ryan Murphy, then best known for the straightforward comedy GLEE and upfront horror of the AMERICAN HORROR STORY anthology series, announced a comedy-horror anthology called SCREAM QUEENS back in October of 2014, the passionate pop culture junkie himself had to know that successfully pulling off the feat was a tall order at the outset. Then again, maybe not, as Murphy seemed to think – with arguable arrogance or naiveté – that he was creating something new here with frequent collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan.
Expectations were high. Murphy – who had by that time developed both a passion and a penchant for successfully casting actresses of a certain age – wooed perennial scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back to the small screen amidst negotiations of limited time on the show’s first season New Orleans set. Anticipation was also high because Murphy had proven himself adept in both genres. As the FOX and Murphy PR machines launched massive amounts of advance press – including a much-touted and successful dual AHS-SCREAM QUEENS panel at San Diego Comic Con – SCREAM QUEENS promised to be a slam-dunk. 

SCREAM QUEENS bowed on September 22nd, 2015, to decidedly mixed reviews from critics and (seemingly) lackluster ratings, attracting a disappointing 4.04 million viewers while lagging in same-night numbers behind shows on CBS, NBC, and ABC. Being beat by THE MUPPETS reboot didn’t ease what must have been Murphy’s initial pain. But Nielsen’s first delayed-viewing snapshot of the season would tell a different story, with SCREAM QUEENS realizing a 65% gain – the night’s biggest in both raw numbers and percentage according to Nielsen’s “live plus-3” estimates.
As reported by VARIETY, SCREAM QUEENS would prove to be an example of modern-day viewing habits, with only a fraction of the show’s audience watching live when it aired and viewership increasing by 189% when time-shifted viewing and multi-platform viewers for the entire season were factored in. The inaugural season ended up bringing in a total audience of about 8.1 million viewers, no doubt aided by the buzz-worthy show’s sizable social media presence.

Ratings and critical notice aside, the first season of SCREAM QUEENS was a mixed bag. The plot for the show’s thirteen-episode first season focuses on a string of gory murders plaguing the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at fictional Wallace University, triggered by events linked to a twenty-year-old murder mystery and cover-up. Curtis plays Dean Cathy Munsch, nemesis to the sorority’s president, Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). Dean Munsch wants to see the snobby sorority system dismantled; Chanel wants to rule over it with a Prada-coiffed iron fist. Interrupting this battle of feminist wills is a red devil-masked serial killer who dispatches at least one hapless cast member each episode in increasingly outlandish ways.
Murphy and company wear their horror influences proudly on their sleeves with the elaborate murder set pieces here harkening back to the high camp sensibility of the giallo films of the mid- to late-70’s. Highlights of the pilot alone include a maid getting her face melted off in deep fryer, a prank involving a spray-tan tank spiked with hydrochloric acid, and the Red Devil tooling around on a lawnmower decapitating a sorority sister buried up to her neck in the sorority house lawn. Visually, the show is a treat with garish colors and flamboyant couture that give the gruesome proceedings a highly-stylized aesthetic.

Cast is uniformly excellent, with Murphy’s knack for attracting talent on full display. Roberts seems born to play the uber-bitchy Chanel, with Billie Lourde (real-life daughter of Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of Debbie Reynolds), Abigail Breslin, and pop ingénue Ariana Grande ably rounding out her clique of Chanels. Keke Palmer (in a breakout role here) plays sassy KKT pledge Zayday Williams, while Skyler Samuels plays fellow pledge Grace Gardner, who’s drawn into a Nancy Drew-like amateur detective role as the murderous goings-on escalate. Oliver Hudson (replacing originally cast Joe Manganiello) plays Samuels’ alumni father, while Diego Boneta takes on boyfriend-sidekick duties as journalism student Pete Martinez.
On the fraternity side, Glen Powell emerges as a real breakout star playing the narcissistic dumb jock Chad Radwell, President of the Dickie Dollar Scholars; pop hunk Nick Jonas as Boone, his gay best friend and fraternity brother; English actor Lucien Laviscount as the appropriately named Earl Grey, and YouTube twins Aaron and Austin Rhodes as Roger and Dodger, respectively. Niecy Nash is the genuine scene-stealer throughout the show’s first season, her uproarious portrayal of skittish security guard Denise Hemphill marked by over-the-top shrieking, screaming, and zippy one-liners.

Interestingly, the show’s first season both succeeds and fails in the same key creative aspect: the writing. With writing duties shared and handed off between Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan (or MFB, abbreviated), one could reasonably expect some problems with consistency. But what we get with the first installment of SCREAM QUEENS is painstaking attention to detail when it comes to character dialogue and an overall disjointed larger narrative.  MFB have an uncanny knack for dialogue, and their work here on SCREAM QUEENS is exemplary with lines that snap, crackle, and pop with the precision of heat-seeking missiles. Roberts’ lines, in particular, are razor-sharp with snarky, cringe-worthy political incorrectness. Her petulant coffee-shop rant over an incorrectly made pumpkin spice latte boils over with brilliant social commentary on millennials and entitlement. Curtis, meanwhile, is handed lovingly-crafted monologues that anchor the show’s abject silliness in weightier themes of feminism, politics, and the inherent evils of social hierarchies.
Plot-wise, SCREAM QUEENS maintains strict adherence to the slasher formula while borrowing heavily from Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE model, complete with a sizable body count that slowly narrows down the identity of the killer through a bloody process of attrition and dramatic drawing room-like denouement. One would think that such a solid (if clichéd) narrative structure would lend itself to an easily sustainable level of coherence – but it doesn’t. MFB, while giddily constructing tongue-twisting lines of deliciously glib dialogue for their characters to spew at each other, quickly lose sight of what matters most in a murder mystery – plot. The narrative zigs and zags all over the place, with illogical twists and turns that smack of convenience. It’s as if MFB use the parody element of SCREAM QUEENS as an excuse to lazily eschew any and all semblances of logic.

The first season of SCREAM QUEENS ultimately wallows in its own absurdity, with cartoon pacing and overblown…well, everything. It’s gaudy, glitzy excess in every sense of the word. But it’s deceptively mindless fun, with an underlying satirical brilliance that peeks through its garish coating in snippets of spot-on pop culture deconstruction.
Halfway through the first season, it was obvious to most that SCREAM QUEENS would enjoy a single-season run. Viewers were torn – too macabre for comedy fans, too silly for the horror crowd – and ratings were dropping. The show would finish its inaugural season on December 8th, 2015, with 2.53 million viewers, losing 1.51 million of its screaming queens along the way. Although Curtis garnered a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance in a Television Series by an Actress – Musical or Comedy (which she’d lose to newcomer Rachel Bloom), and the show won both a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy and a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series, cancellation seemed all but a certainty.

But Hollywood is a weird little machine that plays by its own set of rules – and Ryan Murphy clearly boasts some serious say-so around town. It was announced in January that SCREAM QUEENS would indeed be back for another go-round.
Five episodes into the show’s sophomore season, SCREAM QUEENS seems to be finding its tonal footing. MFB have opted to set the new season in a hospital for medical oddities, already seeming a more authentic match for the show’s Grand Guignol-style of madcap macabre. Curtis is back as Cathy Munsch – now an honorary PhD who buys the hospital for as-yet unknown reasons – and MFB, wisely, have made her more front and center (likely to do with the more Curtis-convenient Los Angeles set). Niecy Nash also returns as Denise Hemphill, now an FBI Special Agent, but no less crass and smart-alecky. Zayday, along with the surviving members of the Chanels, are all back as medical students, with the ageless John Stamos and (thoroughly unappealing) Taylor Lautner joining the ensemble as doctors. Lea Michelle, whose first season deeds have finally caught up to her, is also back as Hester, now hysterically Hannibal Lecter-like, as is Glen Powell’s even-funnier himbo scene-stealer Chad Radwell. Kirstie Alley rounds out the second season cast as Ingrid Hoffel, the stern hospital administrator.     

To differentiate between a first season that failed to meet expectations that the advance hype promised and the second season reboot, Murphy and company have wisely opted to visually distinguish SCREAM QUEENS, version 2.0, from its predecessor. While the highly-stylized aesthetic that made the first season such a visual treat to watch is maintained, the show has ditched the bubblegum pink and red hues that colored fictional Wallace University and the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and adopted an alien-green and blue color palette to tint its dingy hospital interiors. The visuals pop amid the lurid, nightmarish colors.
More importantly, MFB have seemingly settled into a creative comfort zone with the writing, opting for ghoulish comedy versus humorous horror. It’s a small distinction some might dismiss as semantics, but it’s key here. It’s no longer horror trying to be edgy with the humor; it’s comedy trying to be edgy with the horror. The dialogue still snaps, and MFB continue to write deliciously sharp soliloquies for Curtis.

Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late for the millions of initial viewers who gave up on the series. Ratings for the second season premiere were down by almost 50%, with World Series and election night preemptions doing little to keep attention-deficit viewers in place and focused in subsequent weeks on the macabre mayhem at the CURE Institute.
Prediction: SCREAM QUEENS is headed for almost-certain cancellation following its sophomore run. Murphy will move Curtis over to AMERICAN HORROR STORY in a much-ballyhooed return to her roots or to one of his other properties, depending upon the themes of future installments of AMERICAN CRIME STORY and FEUD. I’m already squealing in anticipation of shared AHS scenes between Curtis and Kathy Bates, so I’m rooting firmly for the former scenario. Roberts will also return to the AHS fold, and it’s not the last of Powell or Michelle we’ll see in the Murphy universe either. SCREAM QUEENS, the concept and the show, will go down with a lackluster legacy of having more style than substance, likely being better remembered in the Curtis filmography versus television history itself.