At the start of the month, MTV wrapped up the inaugural season of Scream, and now here at the end of the month FOX has launched Scream Queens, packaging the the show’s first two episodes and selling them as a two-hour event. Beyond their release calendar proximity and shared love of the word “scream,” the common denominator between the shows is that they both aim to do the unthinkable: Turn a slasher movie into a TV show, with MTV specifically appropriating the Scream franchise and Fox enlisting Ryan Murphy to do his American Horror Story thing for the entire slasher genre in general. At this point, I have seen the first four episodes of Scream (the entire first season is still up on Hulu) and the first two of Scream Queens, and somewhat to my surprise I massively prefer the one that does not star Jamie Lee Curtis.
Let’s start with Scream. As the show’s co-showrunner Jill Blotevogel told THR, “The tone and structure is really the only connection [between the film and the show] right now.” In the world of the Scream TV series, Sydney Prescott, Dewey Riley and Gail Weathers do not exist, although one assumes Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courtney Cox probably do (albeit without ever having starred in a series of movies all called Scream). Furthermore, the signature Ghostface mask from the films has been replaced with a new mask with a more personal connection to the story. Even the town name has been changed, from Woodsboro to Lakewood.
Blotevogel is right, though – the tone and the structure should be familiar to fans of the movies, with some new modern wrinkles, “What’s fun is while the original would reference horror movies, we’re able to reference horror on TV [e.g., Bates Motel, Hannibal, American Horror Story], which is another level we get to go to. It’s taking what Scream did so well, updating it for 2015 — technology was part of what the killer used then and now we have so much more technology that’s creepy, invasive and stalker-friendly.”
The utilization of modern technology is all over the show’s opening scenes. First, a bi-curious teenager named Audrey (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus) makes-out with another girl from a nearby Catholic high school, unaware they’re being filmed. The make-out session is uploaded to YouTube as part of a cyber-bullying incident. Second, Nina (Bella Thorne), the girl responsible for uploading the video, is murdered in a drawn-out sequence purposefully evoking Drew Berrymore’s infamous death scene just with cell phones, webcams and a hot tub playing vital roles this time.
The Sydney Prescott of this particular story is Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), the most socially-conscious member of Nina’s social circle, which also includes two jocks (Connor Well, Tom Maden), an airhead with a thing for older men (Carlson Young) and a sweet Asian girl (Brianne Tju) who barely hides her nerdy side. Audrey’s best friend Noah (John Karna), i.e., the show’s stand-in for Jaimie Kennedy’s Randy, and the mysterious, handsome new kid in school (Kieran Wilcox) fill out the rest of the high school cast.
Like Sydney, Emma has a suspicious boyfriend (Well), and she’s being raised by a single parent, her mother Daisy Maggie (Tracy Middendorf) who works in the town’s coroner’s office. The pilot reveals that when Daisy was Emma’s age she was at the center of a town tragedy involving a deformed young man named Brandon James who went on a killing spree against those who had bullied him. Brandon’s crush on Daisy is ultimately what led to his arrest, but all of this was kept from Emma. It’s fairly clear that the brief flashbacks we see in the pilot don’t tell the full story about Brandon James, and that learning more about what really happened in the past will directly inform who we think the new present day killer might be.
It’s a show with a big cast – I haven’t even mentioned the town sheriff or sketchy English teacher yet – primarily set in high school and centers around a series of killings which appear to be retribution for a mysterious incident in the past which was covered up by those in power.
That pretty much also describes Scream Queens, except it’s set in college, not high school. Scream Queens is primarily concerned with the Kappa sorority at Wallace University where a member of the sorority died 20 years ago after surprisingly giving birth (she thought her weight gain was just part of the Freshman 15) during a party. Her sorority sisters were too preoccupied with attending to their party to help her because who cares about a girl bleeding out in a bathtub when the DJ downstairs is about to play TLC’s “Waterfalls,” especially when everyone knows that that song is their jam. Cut to the present and a killer sporting a Red Devil costume (also the costume for the school mascot) knocks off one member of the Kappa sorority at a time, forever leading back to the mystery of what really happened on that night 20 years ago.
That bit about the TLC song should immediately let you know what kind of show Scream Queens is going to be – irreverent and campy as hell. Or, to put it another way, a Ryan Murphy show. The man behind Popular, Glee and American Horror Story typically relies on paper thin characterizations, frustratingly inconsistent plotting, and mean-spirited humor, but he usually gets away with everything (at first) by making it all seem so fun and grounded in some recognizable and relatable human drama. When Glee worked best (which wasn’t for very long), it was a true underdog story about a lovable high school teacher (Matthew Morrison) whose dream and passion had been deferred, and a hard-to-take character like the overly ambitious Rachel (Lea Michele) was tempered by the dopey, aw-shucks football jock who just liked to sing in the shower (the late Cory Monteith). It had a genuine heart, and it humanized its most inhumane characters.
Right now, Scream Queens just wants to be nasty, channeling most of its hatred through Kappa’s queen bitch Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). It’s also purposefully weird, e.g., Kappa’s legal liason (Nasim Pedrad, who deserves better) has a medical condition that makes her only want to wear fashion from the 90s, one new pledge in a neckbrace (a very game Lea Michele) is so hard-up for female authority figures that she asks if she can call Chanel “mom,” another pledge is deaf but loves Taylor Swift. The grounding element in the story is supposed to be the inquisitive new Kappa pledge (Skyler Samuels’ Grace Gardner) who only sought to join the sorority as a way of symbolically connecting with her deceased mother who was a Kappa back in her day. We watch her say a bittersweet goodbye to her dad (Oliver Hudson) on the first day of college, quickly fall into a seemingly sweet and goofy early romance with the editor of the school newspaper (Diego Boneta), and go head-to-head with Chanel for destroying Kappa’s once good name (although the flashback to 1995 seems to indicate Kappa was always home to queen bitches like Chanel, and Grace doesn’t have the full story yet).
Grace never completely feels like the grounding force the show needs her to be because it’s too pre-occupied with giving Chanel bitchy voice-over monologues explaining how Kappa society works or letting (the fantastic, as always) Jamie Lee Curtis’ Dean Munsch take the voice-over mic to complain about how much social media sucks when you’re trying to cover up a campus murder. In comparison to such larger-than-life figures, Grace seems a tad toothless, as if she’s a character from a different, far more normal show. Even Abigail Breslin as Chanel’s overly loyal minion seems more interesting, but not enough that seeing her die would sting.
But you don’t watch a Ryan Murphy show and then turn around and complain about it being a Ryan Murphy show. As an anonymous TV showrunner told THR in his mini-review of Scream Queens, “[Scream Queens is] uber-campy high school horror homage. Vicious. Funny. Highly stylized. Could get old quickly but very confidently made. You have to be all in for Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre to not want to turn this off after 20 minutes. But if you are, you have a new show!”
Scream Queens is definitely funny (almost everyone is a cartoon character). MTV’s Scream is very interested in using our modern obsession with technology and social media to enhance the horror; Scream Queens just wants to laugh about how one of its victims will have a text-off with her killer before dying. It’s two very different approaches to basically the same material.
Scream Queens has the big name producer and cast members (in addition to Curtis, Roberts and Michele there’s also a Jonas brother), a much bigger budget, impeccable production values and a higher gore factor. However, I don’t get a sense that Ryan Murphy truly has any deep passion for the slasher genre. It’s just another form he can use to tell Ryan Murphy stories. Scream, on the other hand, seems very interested in still upholding slasher film conventions while at the same time commenting upon them. That’s not to say that I found the episodes scary, but more that I appreciated the effort to be both self-aware and committed to presenting genuine horror.
Scream’s Noah summed it up best near the end of pilot, talking to his potential girlfriend Riley about how to adapt the slasher to TV:
Noah: The thing you have to remember is that the whodunit may not be as important in our story
Riley: So it’s more of a whydoneit?
Noah: No, I’m saying that you need to forget it’s a story – that someone might die at every turn. You see you have to care if the smoking hot lit teacher seems a little too interested in his female students. You have to care if the team wins the big game. You have to care if the smart, pretty girl forgives the dumb jock
Riley: Sounds like Friday Night Lights
Noah: Exactly. You root for them. You love them. So when they are brutally murdered it hurts.
By my count, I have seen four characters killed in Scream’s first four episodes, and four or five in Scream Queens’ first two episodes. When Scream did it after its pilot, it hurt, both because of the sympathy the show had built up for the victim but also in the way the murder was made all the more tragic by using a teenager’s over-reliance on social media and cell phones against them. When Scream Queens did it, I laughed because I was supposed to, but it didn’t hurt at all.
Scream Queens is good for a laugh, and the whodunnit mystery is intriguing enough, particularly due to the cliffhanger at the end of the second episode. Scream, I gather from the internet, ultimately reached a deeply disappointing answer to its central whodunnit, but I’m finding the journey getting there far more engaging than anything I expect out of Scream Queens at this point.