Ryan Murphy’s Touch Is All Over ‘Scream Queens’ — For Better and Worse

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With Ryan Murphy, you always know what you’re going to get. You may not know the specifics — even if you’re not a fan of his shows, you have to admit that they’re creative and refreshingly bizarre — but you can always predict the basic beats, themes, over-the-top moments, “casual” racism, amazing casts, strong starts, and wasted potential.

When Scream Queens is good, it’s fantastically entertaining in a tweet-worthy way that’s also reminiscent of the always-great Heathers. When it’s bad, it’s obnoxiously groan-worthy frustrating. That’s the very nature of the collaboration between Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan (the only writers on the show; never forget that Scream Queens is a “feminist series” without any women writers). The writers work in extremes: they can be quite good or too bad, but they’re neither middling nor boring.

Scream Queens is a satirical, damning look at Greek Life, centering around the easy-to-hate, comically awful sorority Kappa Kappa Tau, its bitchy president Chanel (Emma Roberts), and the seemingly random murders that begin to terrify the college campus. At times, the show is a guilty delight, with brilliant performances (Roberts was built for Murphy’s long-winded, bitchy tirades and ear-shattering screeching; Jamie Lee Curtis, as the university’s dean Cathy Munsch, reminds us why she is, well, the queen of scream queens), horror-genre fun, and some out-of-nowhere great lines (“No one forced the goat to get as drunk as it got,” Chanel interjects at one point; later, she describes a girl as smelling like “hot dog water,” a phrase that will haunt me forever).

The whodunnit (along with the occasional legitimately shocking turns) is engaging enough to keep my attention for the rest of the series, but it’s hard to shake the worry that it probably, likely, won’t be worth it. Murphy has a habit of starting off on a high note — the first season of Popular remains one of my absolute favorites, and I’ll even defend early episodes of Glee despite my personal distaste for flash mob-like singing —and then going downhill so quickly it’s almost impressive. It’s true that this assessment can be applied to the majority of dramatic television series, particularly those that start out feeling new and exciting (Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, Heroes), but it seems especially pervasive in Murphy’s case.

Phot credit: Steve Dietl/FOX

Scream Queens seems even more vulnerable to that pattern than the average Murphy project. How is it ever going to keep up its momentum? How will the show work in its sure-to-happen second season? How will it even have a satisfying first-season finale? At the end of its bloated, two-hour series premiere, it’s already starting to show signs of wear and tear, and of Ryan Murphy eating his own tail. See, all of his negative auteur tendencies are just as predictable as the good stuff. He continues to fall back on the idea that having terrible characters say racist things isn’t racist because their personalities are awful, but no, in fact, racist statements are racist statements. Chanel is a strange case, calling her put-upon maid “white Mammy,” referring to black KKT pledge Zayday Williams (Keke Palmer) as a “hoodrat,” and so on. This makes the case that her character is terrible, yes, but her terribleness is already established in better and more dramatic ways within the first half-hour; the racism is just Ryan Murphy overkill.

And boy is there a lot of Ryan Murphy overkill. Chanel is a raging bitch who doesn’t even learn her friends’ names, referring to them instead as Chanel #3 and Chanel #5 and so on. There is a “predatory lesbian” character, a “deaf Taylor Swift” character, Lea Michele’s character inexplicably (so far) wears a neck brace, Nick Jonas’ character obsessively works out to work out his sexuality, and Niecy Nash wastes her immense talent as a stereotypical sassy security guard. There are jokes about homosexuality and STDs, about “white parties” where everyone has to either wear white or be white, and about “ethnics bringing weird spices from their home countries.” There is a murderer who wears a red devil’s costume; there is also a do-gooder protagonist Grace (Skyler Samuels, who unfortunately fades into the background) and her boring love interest Pete (Diego Martinez). There is so much happening in the first two hours, but most of it feels like it’s there to distract from the fact that only about 15 minutes of the episode is actually good.

With that all said, Scream Queens still manages to be endlessly watchable. It’s an impressive feat: as much as I groaned and rolled my eyes and cursed Murphy’s obnoxious dialogue, I also found myself laughing and engaged in the absurd story, and immediately wanting to watch the next episode after the screeners had ended (and with such a cliffhanger!). It’s almost infuriating how good Ryan Murphy & co. are at getting me hooked on a show, considering how often they’ve burned me before. There are so many great moments within the first two hours — the tech humor is far better than MTV’s Scream, the deaths are terrifically gruesome (possibly too gruesome at times), the performances are a force all their own — that it’s almost enough to make up for the terrible aspects. Almost.

Such is the general approach you have to take if you’re going to enjoy a Ryan Murphy television series: You have to accept, even embrace, the shitty aspects, the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude toward racism and sexism (let’s not even get into the writers’ weak attempts to write real women characters), and the certainty that the whole thing will go to hell eventually. At least there’s some fun to be had on the way to that inevitably disappointing end.

Scream Queens premieres Tuesday, September 21 at 8 PM on Fox.