This Week’s Cover: Inside the gory and glamorous life of Scream Queens

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

#WhiteGirlProblems: The Terror of ‘Scream Queens’ Draws From Greek Life Reality.

“Abigail, you’re slaying,” Emma Roberts says, complimenting costar Abigail Breslin on her comedic delivery, during a break in shooting on Scream Queens’ New Orleans stages.NBC and CBS both had something to be happy about on Monday night with strong premieres for both Blindspot and Live in Pieces, respectively, but the most-hyped debuts of the first Tuesday of the fall season were on ABC and Fox.

Last night, on Fox’s debut series “Scream Queens”—a campy horror series starring Emma Roberts as Chanel Oberlin, all-around horrible sorority girl—Chanel, for no discernible reason except hollow shock value, calls the house’s maid “white Mammy.” Context: “I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave.” “Mammy” is one of the most enduring racialized caricatures in American history—still conjured up by Aunt Jemima, “Gone With The Wind,” and most recently, “The Help.” It refers to an older domestic servant who is a black woman, because so many white people, well into the ‘60s, had a black woman around to call the help. “Scream Queens” isn’t trying to be racist or demeaning—it’s being fake-racist, as a way to be funny. The two actresses, along with co-stars Skyler Samuels, Keke Palmer, Lea Michele, Billie Lourd, and Niecy Nash, who plays inept security guard Denise Hemphill, are shooting a scene in which Chanel #5 begins to crack under the pressure of being stalked by a killer and flees the house. “This is insane! In their first year, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, and Glee were all the televisual version of crack cocaine, zooming along with the energy of their gonzo premises, fresh talent, and endless possibilities.

The two networks launched The Muppets and Scream Queens, with one overlapping half-hour at 8 p.m., and the the clear victor was Jim Henson’s aging puppet troupe. The email, hilarious and shocking in its violent rage over sporting event attendance and flirting tips, tore apart the chapter and led to Martinson’s resignation after it went viral in 2013. And while Team Murphy has proven, at times, unable to sustain that momentum in subsequent seasons, that doesn’t mean we have to write those early episodes off entirely. While American Greek life has never had the most sparkling reputation, Martinson’s email was a highlight in a now commonplace practice: a frat or sorority does something heinous; said act gets passed around the web; people once again question the necessity of collegiate Greek life.

Enter the horror comedy Scream Queens, which had its two-hour premiere Tuesday night, and feels as if it was produced in a lab in order to achieve maximum TV popularity. There’s the issue at hand of how entirely unearned it is for a white man (showrunner Ryan Murphy), a white actress (Roberts), and a white maid (Jan Hoag) to toss around such a loaded phrase.

Airing Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m., Queens is a biting satire of millennials, feminism, and the collegiate Greek system mixed with an elaborate, gruesome Agatha Christie-style whodunit. Some of the jokes are groaners, and some of the characters so broad as to border on vaudevillian (I’m looking at you, Niecy Nash), but there’s no denying that Scream Queens is fun. What struck me was the desperation of calling upon unabashed fake-racism to sound smart or funny or interesting—witty or cool, at essentially any cost. “The Muppets,” which also debuted last night, is geared towards those members of the viewing audience who think that Kermit the Frog having a sex life is inherently funny. The 25-year-old actress plays ruthlessly mean Kappa Kappa Tau president Chanel Oberlin, who finds her sorority, including minions Chanel #3 (Lourd) and Chanel #5 (Breslin), targeted for death by someone dressed as the university’s mascot, the Red Devil. Chanel must also battle with Dean Munsch, who hates everything she stands for, and a group of undesirable new pledges (including Samuels, Michele, and Palmer) whom she’s forced to allow in.

As was the case on Monday, and every day so long as society doesn’t collectively cut the cord, these live-plus-same day ratings tell a fraction of the story. After reports of drug abuse, racism, bestiality, and more are neglected, dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) decides to punish the sorority by letting any pledge join, much to the chagrin of Chanel.

Everyone Loves a Mean Girl: It doesn’t really matter if her name is Regina George, Heather Chandler, Brooke McQueen, or Joffrey Baratheon, everyone loves to hate a mean girl. The show was developed by Bill Prady, who in addition to starting his career with the Jim Henson creative team has executive produced generic sitcoms like “Dharma And Greg,” “Caroline In The City,” and, currently, “The Big Bang Theory.” Naturally, the combination of long-running, low-investment comedy and a wildly beloved childhood institution must have made dollar signs light up in the eyes of ABC executives. (Just to seal the deal, ABC appears to have molded the show to be a pitch perfect puppet-rendition of its Emmy-winning hit, “Modern Family.”) But “The Muppets” isn’t really the Muppets, except in sad facsimile. These pledges include the bright-eyed Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), who wants to join because her late mother was a pledge, Zayday Williams (Keke Palmer), Grace’s roommate, and a host of other outcasts, from a Nancy Meyers–obsessed candle vlogger to scoliosis-afflicted nerd Hester Ulrich (Lea Michele). It not only aims to pull in viewers with an all-star cast — which includes pop singers Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas in supporting roles — but also is being filmed as an anthology that will take the survivors to a new location next season.

The creators are also eager to push the boundaries of what can be said and done on network television. (For instance, necrophilia plays a fairly major role.) “I sorta feel like if you’re gonna do broadcast TV, you better go far, because people are not interested in it if you don’t,” says Murphy. It’s particularly not inventive in its social politics or its characterizations, culling from a history of Regina Georges, Blair Waldorfs, and Paris Gellers. Queens is also the first series greenlit under Fox Television Group’s new chiefs, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, who shepherded both Glee and AHS, so there are high — and heightened — expectations. “There’s a lot of pressure on this business right now,” says Walden. “You have to be able to create some urgency so that people are watching your shows in a way that feels like they are a priority.” Adds Murphy: “I’ve had this experience where you do a network show and they ‘No’ you to death, so you take away any of the edge. It’s grown up, but without any discernible payoff, except titillation; it’s difficult to find the warm-hearted but wry humor that made the Muppets into a national institution.

High Stakes: And we know Roberts will probably get a gruesome ending (even if she winds up being the one behind the stabbings) because the show has no problem bumping off its stars. To paraphrase my former colleague Zack Handlen, the show both wants to inflate the Muppets’ perceived importance through nostalgia and then to poke holes in that same nostalgia—a strategy has determined not just the show’s plot but also its incredibly irritating advertising campaign.

Elsewhere on ABC, the sophomore run of Fresh Off the Boat, a surprisingly robust midseason entry given Tuesday’s recent history of comedy failures, followed The Muppets with 1.9 rating among adults 18-49. The show wears its copycat affection for Heathers on its Lilly Pulitzer–branded sleeve, right down to giving every one of Chanel’s minions her name. One of them is even an alcoholic. “The Muppets” brings us to the behind-the-scenes drama of “Up Late With Miss Piggy,” a late-night talk show hosted by Piggy and run, behind the scenes, by her very recently ex-boyfriend Kermit.

Twists: And because Grande kicked the bucket so early in the series, we were all ready to believe that Nick Jonas—easily the most famous male in the cast—was right behind her when he appeared to have his throat slashed in hour two. The death scenes at the hands of this killer are often the show’s funniest moments, including when pop singer Ariana Grande (playing one of Chanels) tries to fight off her masked attacker via texting and Twitter.

Interestingly, the character that has managed to survive being modernized is Gonzo, and that’s largely because he’s stayed himself—a wise-cracking marginal character with occasional chances to steal the scene. Chanel ordering an overly complicated pumpkin spice latte at boiling hot temperature is funny, though not as funny considering how much this show’s audience already knows the punch line to a “basic bitch walks into a Starbucks” joke. His pitch to Kermit for how to incorporate “Dancing With The Stars” host Tom Bergeron into the show—“Dancing With The Czars”—is the only gag in the broadcast that made me laugh.

Well, that and the moment when Kermit admitted baldfaced (toadfaced?) to the camera that his relationship with new piggirlfriend Denise began at a “cross-promotional synergy meeting.” Bergeron and Elizabeth Banks, a frequent guest on “Modern Family,” were certainly feeling that synergy. And Kermit’s new relationship is essentially the premise of the show—meaning it could be that “The Muppets” is showing some signs of self-awareness. But the show finds its voice when it veers away from Mean Girls and indulges in the kind of irresistibly quotable, spitfire insults that you might find on Veep. “You’re so confident without being mean,” Chanel remarks in awe to the feminist-minded newcomer Grace. “What antidepressants are you on?” Scream Queens has bloody horror, relatively of-the-moment references, and sick burns, but its bread and butter is its sense of satire, lampooning the dredges of sorority culture. But when a show’s characters are straightforwardly all of these things — openly and somewhat cartoonishly — where does the satire begin and end? There’s a great, serious triangle of thought running throughout the show: a tension between dean Munsch taking the anti-sorority Second Wave feminist position, Chanel wanting her elitist kingdom intact, and Grace and Zayday leading the charge for a sorority that’s also an empowering sisterhood.

As Rebecca Martinson and every other misguided, highly blogged sorority across America has proven, mocking the worst of Greek life is easy and widely available, as is the mockery of White Girls. Just how many red devils are there? (Come on, you’ve seen Scream, it’s always more fun when several killers are working in cahoots.) Which of these girls or boys is the bathtub baby from 1995? (It’s gotta be Grace, right?) Where’s Ms. For Generation X (or auld millennials) there are the references to Heathers (girls buried up to their heads in grass, much?), Scream, and, thanks to Oliver Hudson’s playlist, Nasim Pedrad’s throwback wardrobe, and a TLC-heavy flashback sequence, the dream of the 90s is alive on Scream Queens. Curtis, of course, has the meta appeal of having starred in the genre classic Halloween, and possesses a horror-movie pedigree handed down to her by her mother, Psycho star Janet Leigh. But Curtis is also just fantastic, maniacally chewing up the scenery as a dean who (justifiably) hates sororities, (less justifiably) sleeps with students, and looks fabulous lurking menacingly in the shadows.

Sure, when Billie Lourd explains the concept of “Mom,” she’s speaking to the boomers and the Gen Xers in the crowd. (Also, are Channel No. 3’s earmuffs an homage to Lourd’s real-life mom, Carrie Fisher?) But this is also clearly a show that was made to be GIF—ed, memed, and hash tagged within an inch of its life.

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