One of the most hyped and highly anticipated new shows this fall was Fox’s “Scream Queens,” which premiered Sept. 22. The series, helmed by “Glee” and “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy, was first announced nearly a year ago and has been promoted heavily ever since.
Billed as a “horror comedy” in the vein of the “Scream” film series, “Scream Queens” features a wide array of stars, from original “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis to professional Mariah Carey-impersonator Ariana Grande to insufferable “Glee” alum Lea Michele. The first trailer came out way back in February, and all of these stars have been promoting the show ever since.
The show centers on a sorority house, headed by queen bee Chanel (Emma Roberts), that is rocked by a series of murders by a figure in red.
Despite the buzz surrounding the show, though, it has opened to lukewarm reviews and ratings. Only four million people tuned in to see the show, numbers far below the season premieres of “The Voice” and “NCIS,” and the series premiere of “The Muppets.” In comparison, the latest season of Murphy’s other horror project, “American Horror Story,” debuted to over six million viewers, and that was on cable television.
The critics haven’t been too kind to it either: “Scream Queens” sits at 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 59 on Metacritic, which indicates “mixed or average reviews.” That’s a long way off from the critical acclaim and Emmy nominations Murphy is used to with “American Horror Story.”
What’s behind the middling reception to the show? The premise itself definitely confused potential viewers. Throughout the promotional campaign and the first two episodes, aired back-to-back, it seems as though the show’s writers could never decide what kind of show they wanted “Scream Queens” to be. At times it’s over-the-top camp, while other times it pushes the boundaries of gore on network television. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it, “It’s too silly for real horror fans and too gross for the fainthearted.”
In a way, “Scream Queens” is almost like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of “American Horror Story,” increasing the camp and keeping the gore. The show’s humor is at many times way too try-hard and appeals only to a small demographic. How many people would get the subtle references to candle vlogger Az4Angela? Not many.
Unfortunately, “Scream Queens” often relies on race and stereotypes for its humor. In one particularly cringe-worthy scene, mean girl Chanel calls the house maid Ms. Bean “white mammy” and makes a reference to the unflattering racial stereotypes of the slaves in “Gone with the Wind.” The black pledge, played by Keke Palmer, is reduced to the angry-black-woman stereotype — shrill and confrontational. Nick Jonas’ gay frat boy Boone is a predatory sex maniac, an unwelcome gay stereotype. At best, this humor is lazy. At worst, it’s an attempt to punch down at minorities for irony or shock value. The humor in a show like “Scream Queens” should theoretically be parody or camp.
While many times the jokes read like replies in a Twitter feud, “Scream Queens” isn’t all bad. Jamie Lee Curtis commands every scene she’s in, chewing up the scenery and the younger actresses and spitting them back out. The deaths we’ve seen in the show so far have delivered on the spectacle. Ariana Grande texting with her murderer just before her death is a particular highlight. Her death and its clever commentary on today’s obsession with social media is the type of show “Scream Queens” should always be.
While “Scream Queens” is certainly not for everyone, as the ratings and reviews show, it can develop a nice niche audience. If it can stick around for that long.