Spoilers Below for Scream Queens’ Season 1 Episode “Chainsaw”
In the current Entertainment Weekly cover story, Tim Stack describes Scream Queens as “a slasher series that mixes WTF shocks with plenty of ROTFL.” Yeah, thanks Tim. That much was already apparent after the show’s two-hour series premiere, which I liked but was not overly crazy about. It inspired me to check out MTV’s Scream, marveling at the way two shows took such massively different approaches to the same general material. I found Scream to be clever with its horror, honest with its treatment of the central murder mystery and stocked with at least a couple of characters worth caring about. Scream Queens, on the other hand, seemed to offer little more than a couple of good laughs.
Now I have watched Scream Queens’ third episode (“Chainsaw”), and this is still a vexing show. It is increasingly difficult to rationalize that the relatively normal, nice main girl Grace (Skyler Samuels) exists in the same world as uber-frat jock and manwhore Chad Radwell (Glen Powell), who proved in “Chainsaw” that he might be even more of a walking cartoon than the male models from Zoolander. The show is still purposefully bereft of likable characters, but “Chainsaw” showed me that I massively underestimated just how funny Scream Queens could be. There is a scene roughly 18 minutes into the episode that had me “ROTFL,” and it has turned me around on this whole show. I refer, of course, to the short life and spectacular death of the college’s new mascot Coney.
After the various deaths in the first two episodes were perpetrated by someone dressed as the school mascot, Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) makes the sensible decision to change the mascot from the Red Devil to Coney, an anthropomorphic ice cream cone picked since soft serve ice cream was somehow started at the college. The Dean partially has to make the change because the poor student volunteering to wear the mascot costume keeps getting attacked on campus by students who assume he’s the serial killer. The student body gathered for Dean Munsch’s announcement react to the reveal of Coney with damning silence, which is itself a fairly funny moment. Curtis plays Munsch’s obvious professional embarrassment perfectly.
Later on in the episode, the kid in the Coney costume actually gets his own voice-over sequence. If you’ve ever seen Glee you’re probably familiar with these. It’s a Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennant specialty, and what made it so fun on Glee is that it was never isolated to a single character (unlike Veronica Mars or iZombie). Often times the show’s best jokes came from the little peeks into the character’s interior monologues.
It’s not surprising that Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan carried this over to Scream Queens, but the way they use it with Coney feels like self-parody or perhaps a straight parody of the Hulu Original documentary series Behind the Mask about people who work as professional mascots.
Starting with a point-of-view shot from underneath the mask, a slasher movie staple possibly used here as a direct homage to Halloween, we watch and listen to the kid in the Coney costume describe how his life has completely changed since the school switched mascots.
The power has gone straight to the kid’s head, though, as he now regularly cuts in line at the cafeteria and even steals money from the cash register, delighted that he’ll get away with it because everyone reacts to his latest daring acts as if they were in a Mentos commercial. The peppy music underscoring all of this further beats home the Mentos commercial comparison.
But why are we pausing to highlight this goofy character we’ve never met before? He probably has nothing to do with the show’s big conspiracy dating back to 1995. He’s given up on dental school in the hopes of becoming one of the world’s best mascots. Not exactly murder suspect material.
Oh, it turns out we’ve met this character just to watch him boast about his life and then get brutally murdered. That last bit happens in his dorm room in an extended fight scene featuring two people baring the painted-on, static facial expressions of mascot masks. There is something inherently hilarious to me about attributing emotion to things like mascots which can’t actually change their expressions, as beautifully realized in the classic Daily Show sketch about the ethanol-promoting mascot Corn Cob Bob or the endless Sportscenter commercials featuring sports mascots. As such, seeing two mascots go at it in a slasher movie scenario amused me to no end.
It’s so mean-spirited.
It has nothing to do with the murder mystery.
It’s not even referenced by any of the other characters in the rest of the episode meaning that poor kid’s decapitated body might still be on that dorm room floor (or the killers took his body somewhere).
Ultimately, it has very little to do with the rest of the episode, and it’s a character we didn’t really know being killed by someone whose identity is so shrouded in secrecy that not even Scream Queen’s actors know if their character was the one under the Red Devil mask.
But, wow, did it ever make me laugh.
It sounds like I’m saying one really funny scene turned me around on Scream Queens. Not true. “Chainsaw” had loads of funny moments, like pretty much anytime Gigi (Nasim Pedrad) talked. She’s so oblivious to Dean Munsch’s attempts to sabotage her developing relationship with Grace’s surprisingly intense film professor father (Oliver Hudson) that she’s turned from seeming like a weird character in the pilot to coming off as very endearing in “Chainsaw.” When she almost died at the end, I finally cared whether or not a character on this show survived to see another episode.
There was also that incredibly over-the-top sequence in which Chad and his gang of frat idiots roamed the campus streets dressed like the Backstreet Boys from the “I Want it That Way” video. Their mission was to find the serial killer and take him out, and this is where I realized they were essentially frat boy versions of the male models from Zoolander. That’s movie’s cartoon idiots thought it was fine to have an impromptu posing session and water fight with gasoline instead of water, and Scream Queen’s cartoon idiots attack an idle car and fire hydrant with their baseball bats because they now hate anything that is predominantly red. Soon enough, they’re surrounded by not one but two people in Red Devil costumes, learning quickly that bringing bats to a chainsaw fight is a bad idea, resulting in a hilarious Evil Dead-esque dismemberment:
After scenes like that, you’re either with this show or you’re not, and if you can accept that this is a live-action cartoon version of a slasher movie then it’s actually pretty funny. Even its central mystery is mostly being played for humor, with the hints of potential murder suspects so clumsily foregrounded that it must be entirely intentional.
You win, Scream Queens. I’ve adjusted to what kind of show you want to be. Most of the gags are going to be over the top. Some of them won’t work, like possibly everything involving Lea Michele’s character. But that Coney vs. Red Devil fight is already my favorite scene from any new show this fall.