‘Scream Queens’ Series Premiere Recap: “Pilot/Hell Week”

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How does one even recap a show like Scream Queens? This isn’t a show so much as a series of tweets wrapped in the first ten minutes of Legally Blonde.

Seriously, a list of one-liners alone would probably communicate the experience of watching last night’s crazily overstuffed two-hour pilot better than anything else. Which makes perfect sense: as American Horror Story has aged, its campy humor has become more dominant and less accidental. Here, Ryan Murphy has found an opportunity to bake comedy into a series’ premise from the very start, and the result sounds like Coven had one too many pumpkin spice lattes and made a bare minimum effort to go by network rules.

So let’s revisit a few of those one-liners, shall we?

  • “Historically, short people are sneaky backstabbers. Like Napoleon. Or Paul Shaffer.”
  • “I call this [candle I’m vlogging about] the Nancy Meyers because it smells like fancy couches and menopause.”
  • “Sexy Gopher Whore Head Challenge.”

Man, it’s good to be back in the Murphyverse.

Scream Queens’ first episode (two, technically) laid miles and miles of pipe, but it all begins at a Kappa Kappa Tau rager in 1995, where a bunch of sisters in their Clueless best let one of their pledges die post-childbirth so they could rock out to “Waterfalls.” Fast forward 20 years, when Kappa is ruled with an iron fist by an ur-sorority chick named—what else?—Chanel, played by—who else?—Emma Roberts. Despite Scream Queens’ bloated cast, Kappa somehow appears to only have three full-fledged sisters, all of whom are Chanel’s “minions.”

Jamie Lee Curtis plays a newly promoted dean out for blood and momentary meta plot device; when Chanel asks her if she “munches box because your last name’s Munsch,” she reminds Chanel that “Out in the real world, people just don’t talk that way to other people”…right before going Full Murphy by monologuing about bra burnings past to Chanel’s kinda-sorta boyf Chad Radwell, who she’s blackmailed into sex because he’s on academic probation. Munsch might hate Kappa because they’re the richest, bitchiest, hazing-est sorority around, or she might hate them because she helped cover up their dead pledge scandal all those years ago. Probably both.

Either way, Munsch uses her newfound power to mandate open pledging for Kappa, thereby initiating American Sorority Rush: Freak Show, starring Neck Brace (Lea Michele!), Deaf Taylor Swift (oof), and Jennifer the Candle Vlogger (my personal bet for Final Girl). There’s also good girl Grace, who’s only joining because her dead mom was a Kappa once upon a time, her roommate ZayDay, who shows that the only thing more cringeworthy than a woman written by a team of male writers is a black woman written by a team of white male writers, and a “Predatory Lez” who’s there to demonstrate that Ryan Murphy has not only heard your identity politics-based objections to his ouevre, he can also faithfully recreate them—and he still doesn’t give a fuck.

Enter the series’ slasher villain, who wears their university’s red devil mascot costume and may or may not be responsible for the Kappa housekeeper’s death by Deep-Fried Face. (Chanel just wanted to scare Ms. Bean via attempted drowning in the deep-fryer; it wasn’t supposed to be on!!!) There’s also some near-fatal hydrochloric acid burns on Chanel’s predecessor that need accounting for, but those might just be karmic retribution for a white woman asking to look like Jada Pinkett Smith. Either way, he makes his official debut by running over Deaf Taylor Swift’s head with a lawnmower.

That may be the murder that freaks out the entire campus, but it comes after the scene that functions as Scream Queens’ thesis statement. Alas, Ariana Grande’s time as “Chanel No. 2” was short, though in retrospect it seems pretty obvious that a global pop star wasn’t about to sign any long-term TV contracts. Still, her arc managed to be exactly what one pictures when they read the phrase “Ryan Murphy horror comedy”: a blood oath that turns into an argument about STDs! a minion name because her boss doesn’t want to know her real one! a grisly murder carried out entirely via text! Let me pause the recap-writing for a sec so I can make that “I’m going to kill you now.”/”Wait whaaaaat????” screenshot my Facebook cover photo. Proves the hammer-fisted point Murphy and co. made about snake people, but also worth it!

Anyway, by premiere’s end the house is under the watchful eye of Nasim Pedrad’s national chapter head/trauma-induced ’90s nostalgic and Niecy Nash’s blatant “sassy” stereotype/security guard. Not that either stops the slasher from breaking into the house and writing SLUTS WILL DIE on Chanel’s wall. Or killing Nick Jonas’s “secret gay” golf frat boy. (#hottake: having the boys who find the body out-scream queen the sorority sisters is the episode’s most hilariously feminist moment; what can I say, I love me some parodies of college bro masculinity!) Or murdering the security guard’s coworker and disposing of her body.

There’s a lot of ground still left uncovered, in terms of both plot and comic detail. The creepy journalist/barista who wants to bone Grace! Chad Radwell’s casual necrophilia kink! Chanel’s 210-degree pumpkin spice latte order! Still, let’s quit while we’re ahead with the obligatory Final Twist: mercifully, Ryan Murphy hasn’t killed off both his resident pop stars just yet. Nick Jonas will live to continue his “I’m not gay, but I’m super cool with playing gay onscreen” schtick another day, this time in cahoots with the killer.

‘Til next week, when the random low-angle shots and absurdist sorority humor continue!