Creating a hit TV show is so difficult that the networks keep turning to proven talents for help. The Muppets, John Stamos, Rob Lowe, Limitless, and Minority Report are some of the known, successful quantities that have been asked to re-work their magic this fall. The prolific Ryan Murphy has also been tapped by Fox to once again ply audiences with his trademark products, spiked bubblegum and nutritious venom. But his new show, Scream Queens, a comic-horror anthology show, is not exactly a wholly original series. It’s similar is to his FX show American Horror Story in the way that light brown sugar speckled with grit is to dark brown sugar speckled with slivers of glass and MDMA: same overall taste, less intensity, greatly reduced chance that you’ll experience either agony or ecstasy.
Scream Queens is set at Wallace College, at the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house. It immediately introduces Murphy’s favorite monsters and demons of the self: self-regard, self-involvement, and selfishness. It begins with a flashback to 1995, when a Kappa died in a bathtub after giving birth because her sorority sisters wouldn’t call an ambulance until they had danced to TLC’s “Waterfalls.” It then jumps to the present, where Kappa president Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts, an American Horror Story regular), a total Heather, cruelly dominates her minions, whose names she cannot be bothered to learn. She refers to them, instead, as Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel No. 3 (Billie Lourd), and Chanel No. 5 (Abigail Breslin). (Chanel No. 4 left college and died.)
Chanel is vicious and mercenary, a former nice girl who learned to throw acid, literally, in order to become a queen bee. Her acrid, racist, classist narration introduces audiences to the twisted world of Scream Queens, where Chanel plans events like a “side-boob mixer” and a “white party” at which “everyone is encouraged to wear and be white.” She tell the audience “Life is a class system,” before introducing the sorority housekeeper Ms. Bean (Jan Hoag) as “That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet … I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave.” Later, Chanel accidentally-on-purpose holds Ms. Bean’s face in a deep fryer.
This kind of steroidal mean girl is a favorite type of Murphy’s, all the way back to his show Popular, but she is not usually the initial POV character, what with being a heinous racist and all. But, hey, this is supposed to be a horror show: wishing for the show’s protagonist to die is a slight twist. For those looking for a more standard heroine, the nice girl all-too-ready to be corrupted, another Murphy favorite, is also on hand. Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels) is a bright-eyed innocent who wants to rush Chanel’s sorority because her mother, who died when she was 2 (she thinks anyway), was also a Kappa.
Grace’s chances of getting into Kappa are greatly improved when the Kappa-hating Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), who you can just call Sue Sylvester, insists that Kappa has to admit anyone who wants to join: All the snobby white girls hoping to grow up to be “Cindy McCain or Megyn Kelly” flee, leaving a pledge class that Chanel describes as “the dregs of humanity.” It includes Grace, her black roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer), Hester “Neckbrace” Ulrich (Lea Michelle), “Deaf Taylor Swift” (Whitney Meyer), “Predatory Lez” (Jeanna Han), and Jennifer (Breezy Eslin), a “candle vlogger” who reviews candles on YouTube. (Sample review: “I call this one the Nancy Meyers Experience, because it smells like creamy couches and menopause.”)
Another Murphy habit in evidence: a huge cast. In addition to the aforementioned characters, Nasim Pedrad shows up as Gigi Caldwell, the head of the sorority nationwide: Oliver Hudson plays Grace’s protective father Wes; Niecy Nash is a security guard who can’t carry a gun; Diego Boneta appears as the college newspaper editor and Grace’s love interest; and there is a whole fraternity, which consists most notably of the egomaniac Chad Radwell (Glenn Powell), Chanel’s boyfriend, who dumps her when her sorority falls on hard times, because, in his words, “I can’t date a garbage person” and his best friend Boone (Nick Jonas, excellent), who is gay. This friendship leads to one of the episodes best bits, when Chad, who knows that Boone is gay, lets Boone climb into bed with him for a snuggle. When Chanel walks in on them and freaks out, Chad gets angry at her for being a “spoiled homophobic girl” who can’t understand that everyone wants to get with Chad. It’s quintessential Murphy: not every bigot is bigoted in the same way. One or more of these people is a serial killer.
In the first episode, the killer, who dresses as the school’s red devil mascot, kills at least three people, but those looking for any real shivers in their comedies should probably rewatch Scream. It’s not that the deaths aren’t theoretically gruesome— someone’s head gets taken off with a lawn mower—it’s that Murphy does not linger on any of them. Fear is as much about dreadful anticipation as it is about arterial blood.
Scream Queens feels in almost every way like American Horror Story Lite, which is not so bad. When American Horror Story is at its worst, as it was with last season’s Freak Show, it is unsettling, gloomy, and grasping, playing a bad game of pick-up sticks with capital-T themes. But at its best, as in Asylum, AHS is bold, emotional, and terrifying like nothing else on TV. Its ambitions are grander than Scream Queens. Just compare Scream Queens to AHS: Coven, which also featured Roberts and a group of college-age female outcasts: Screams Queens is younger, much less frightening, just about as funny, and more superficial, relying almost exclusive on Chanel’s stank mind for its shocks.
Still, there’s a reason Fox keeps hitting up Ryan Murphy: Even operating in his comfort zone—the world of bitchy teenagers—his product is polished, sharp and full of one-liners that leave a mark. And the first episode contains one absolutely bravura sequence, an elegant, contemporary homage to silent movies that’s also a deft spoof of texting culture. In it, a sorority girl and the killer text each other throughout her cartoonish murder, as she’s more engaged with exchanging messages than getting help. “I’m going to kill you now,” he types to her and instead of running or screaming she types, and sends, “Wait, whaaattt???!” May the rest of the Kappas die so creatively.