Watching Fox's Scream Queens is a unique brand of torture

Emma Roberts and company - FOX
  • Fox
  • Emma Roberts and company

Watching a television pilot can be a lot like going on a first date. It starts off awkward. The jokes aren't landing, the timing's all wrong. Maybe you drink a little more than usual hoping some good ol' social lubricant can provide the situation with the sheen that it's so desperately lacking. But you're an optimist, a Pollyanna, a firm believer in the better angels of our nature. Just give it another chance, you think, and surely things will get better.

But then on the second date your companion sits across the table hurling all manner of racial epithets, gay slurs, and misogynistic digs. He spills wine down the front of his shirt. He has spinach stuck in his teeth, though you can't recall him ordering any. He slaps the waitress on the ass and looks at you meaningfully when the bill arrives. Essentially, he reveals himself to be perhaps the most revolting human being with whom you've ever shared space. Then he throws up in your hair.

This is pretty much what it's like to watch the first few episodes Fox's Scream Queens, the newest product to roll off the Ryan Murphy production line. Ostensibly a send-up of the slasher genre, the series follows a gaggle of sorority sisters as, one by one, they're picked off by a masked killer. The problem is the show has neither the intelligence nor the moral grounding to function as effective satire. Its sloppy attempts at social commentary come across as boorish and culturally tone deaf.

On the topic of deafness, one of the show's first victims is a deaf devotee of Taylor Swift, whom the sorority sisters wittily christen "deaf Taylor Swift." Buried up to her neck in a garden along with fellow pledges as part of a hazing ritual, deaf Taylor fails to realize what's happening when the other girls start screaming in terror. She sees their mouths moving, but assumes they're singing "Shake it Off"—because, you know, she's a deaf Taylor Swift fan. Then she's promptly decapitated by a killer astride a riding lawn mower.

I suppose this could be read as an attempt to mock Taylor Swift and her legion of zealots rather than a jab at the hearing impaired, but it doesn't land that way. The joke is more reminiscent of the shitty little boy on the playground who makes fun of the kids in special ed. And frankly even if it had worked, a takedown of Swift hardly feels like fresh social criticism. Either way you look at it, the gag is low-hanging fruit.

Just a few other examples to establish the show's vitriolic bona fides: A housekeeper scrubbing the sorority house floor on her knees is referred to as "white mammy" and made to quote from Gone with the Wind; a black pledge with a predilection for pork rinds is called "hood rat" and subjected to having her bodily flaws circled in white eyeliner "so it'll show up"; and a black female security guard hired to protect the house would rather sit in her car eating fast food than do her job.

Racism certainly isn't off-limits for comedy, and the entertainment world is full of examples of performers who, in exploring cultural conventions, deftly walk the line between humor and hate. In a season-two episode of his hit FX series Louie, Louis CK, as the title character, takes his two young daughters to meet an elderly great aunt. The old woman offers the children a bowl of Brazil nuts, which she refers to in antiquated slang as "nigger toes." The girls are confused, Louie is horrified, and the old woman blithely carries on proffering the nuts, unaware of the problem. The scene is both startling and hilarious, skillfully demonstrating how far removed Louie's children are from the kind of casual racism that is still firmly embedded in older generations. At no point does the joke feel like it's made at the expense of black people nor, for that matter, does it seem to mock the old woman. It simply shines a light on the jarring intergenerational disconnects that exist in today's world.

That's the thing about humor that aspires to double as edgy cultural commentary—it can't be mean spirited or dull witted. In the case of Scream Queens, it is almost unfailingly both. In addition to oblivious deaf people and lazy black ghetto dwellers, the world of Scream Queens is populated by privileged, vapid white girls who dress exclusively in couture and never seem to eat. White guys are 'roid-raging sexual predators obsessed with golf. Social rejects are overweight, unkempt, and bespectacled, outfitted in the kind of cutesy, campy clothing that's generally reserved for toddlers. Lea Michelle, an alum of Murphy's Glee, is presumably showing her range here playing a nerd in a scoliosis brace.

But perhaps the most tired stereotypes are reserved for the show's gay characters. Sam, the sorority's one gay pledge, is a hyperbutch tattooed lesbian who of course can't love women without hating men and the oppressive patriarchy they represent. She's bent on seducing anything with two X chromosomes and therefore denominated "Predatory Lez." A closeted male frat bro, played to bland effect by Nick Jonas, feigns a fear of thunderstorms so he can climb into bed with a male roommate and "press his wiener" into the guy's back.

Like racism, homosexuality and homophobia are fair game. But I'm surprised that Murphy seems so intent on taking us back to a J. Edgar Hoover-level of paranoia about the insidious threat of gays in society. A bearded, bomb-wielding Bolshevik would feel only slightly more anachronistic.

Scream Queens is clearly meant to function as both an homage to classic slasher films and a subversion of their tropes. Any doubt about this should be erased by the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, the original scream queen and horror film icon. Curtis found her breakout role in John Carpenter's Halloween franchise playing Laurie Strode, the bookish, virginal sister of serial killer Michael Myers. Strode was a progenitor of the "final girl" archetype, as described by Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The final girl, by virtue of her inherent goodness, was allowed to survive the carnage while her more promiscuous counterparts were hacked to slutty bits. Scream Queens features Curtis as Dean Munsch, a scheming, pot-smoking university official with a hidden agenda and a penchant for sleeping with students. In other words, an open "fuck you" to her final-girl legacy. Oh, and don't think the name Munsch comes without the requisite lesbian joke.

That's the problem with Scream Queens: it's a world in which "Munsch" couldn't possibly be uttered without "carpet." Watching it is like hanging out with a group of stoned 14-year-old boys. Satirizing the slasher flick has been done before and done well (thank you, Wes Craven), and Scream Queens is struggling to add anything new to the conversation. Given the high-profile casting of pop stars like Jonas and Ariana Grande, the show clearly has its sights set on a younger demographic, a generation that is already a little short on empathy and loathe to communicate in full sentences.

Scream Queens pulled in 1.7 million viewers for its premiere and was touted as the most tweeted show of the night. It remains to be seen how the show will fare over the course of the season. If it does well, I guess we'll know that cruel, discriminatory humor directed straight at the lowest common denominator is what the kids want to see these days.

And that is truly frightening. 

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Add a comment