“Name one bad thing that’s ever happened in a Best Buy parking lot,” a security guard tells her friend midway through the Scream Queens pilot. The joke, of course, is a reference to the death of Hae Min Lee, whose real-life murder—a story popularized by the podcast Serial—may have happened in the parking lot of a Best Buy. Scream Queens—peppered with jokes so tasteless that you kind of hate yourself for laughing at them—is clearly a Ryan Murphy joint.
To clue you into what we’re working with here, “Hell Week,” Scream Queens’ debut episode, begins with a Kappa Kappa Tau sorority girl bleeding out during a house party after giving birth in a bathtub in 1995. Smash cut to 20 years later and Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) is president of Kappa Kappa Tau, reigning over the sorority with an iron fist that always happens to be clutching a pumpkin spice latte.
To put it lightly, Chanel is a total fucking monster and not simply because she’ll do anything (possibly even MURDER) to stay on top. She takes away her sorority sisters’ names, instead calling them Chanel #1, #2, etc. (ya get it?), she’s abusive and manipulative, racist and homophobic, and, to drive it all home, she says things like, “That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean, but I call her White Mammy because she’s essentially a house slave” when introducing the Kappa Kappa Tau housekeeper. And that’s all within the first 10 minutes of the episode.
Chanel’s not Scream Queens’s only source of cringe-worthy moments: A deaf pledge sees her sisters screaming in fear and assumes that—because their mouths are open—they’re actually singing Taylor Swift songs. Worst yet, she joins in, adding the chorus of “Shake It Off” as the soundtrack to her imminent doom. Cathy Munsch (played by one of the original scream queens, Jamie Lee Curtis), dean of the fictional Wallace University, blackmails both students and students’ parents into sex, obstructs murder investigations, and regularly opines her loss of totalitarian power. Also: a woman has her face fried off in a deep fryer and there’s an extended scene of shirtless Nick Jonas (playing gay frat boy Boone) lifting weights for no real reason besides the obvious—Nick Jonas loves to take his shirt off.
What’s remarkable, though, is that despite all this tackiness, Scream Queens —a show about college students being violently picked off by a masked serial killer—is laugh-out-loud funny. When told that the sorority girls need to stick together, Kappa’s lawyer and sorority chief Gigi Caldwell (played by the expertly charming Nasim Pedrad) says the experience will be “like a Friends episode... where someone’s trying to murder all the friends!” When Dean Munsch tells Chad (Glen Powell), Chanel’s frat boyfriend who happens to be in love with the dean, to take a psychology course to find out who gave him “such disgusting mommy issues,” Chad dumbly replies, “Well, it was probably my mom.”
In what is probably the standout scene of the episode (even though it leaked earlier this summer), baby queen Ariana Grande, a.k.a Chanel #2, texts back and forth with the killer (dressed as the campus devil mascot) while they’re standing face-to-face. “I’m going to kill you now,” the murderer texts. Rather than run away, Ariana types back, “Wait whaaaat???!”
The cast—rounded out by Skyler Samuels (as Chanel’s SUPPOSEDLY kind-hearted foil Grace), Keke Palmer, Abigail Breslin, Lea Michele, Diego Boneta, Billie Lourd, Oliver Hudson, and the always fun to watch Niecy Nash—perform their roles adequately (and in some cases, fantastically), but the true fun of the show (which airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on Fox) comes from its campiest, meanest, and most heightened moments.
Scream Queens is not a series for the easily (or even somewhat easily) offended, but for the more calloused viewer (or for those of us who enjoy silver-tongued, blood-spattered ridiculousness), it’s a downright romp. Let’s hope that Murphy—who doesn’t have the best track record with this kind of thing—manages to keep it up.
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Image via Scream Queens/Fox.