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It looks like Ryan Murphy will continue to dominate the anthology format. American Horror Story hit it big with Murder House back in 2011 and is about to roll into its fifth season, and based on the quality and appeal of the premiere episode of the new horror-comedy anthology series Scream Queens, Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan could definitely have another longterm hit on their hands.
The two-hour pilot episode introduces Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), the head of Kappa House, and her minions, Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel #3 (Billie Lourd) and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin). They’re all for popularity, exclusivity and control, so when Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) demands that they accept all interested students into their new pledge class, they’re not happy about it.
That’s where Skyler Samuels’ character steps in. Grace is an incoming freshman who’s convinced that if she joins Kappa, she’ll be following in her late mother’s footsteps. Despite some protest, her roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer) agrees to come with and together, they join the neck brace-wearing Hester Ulrich (Lea Michele), “deaf Taylor Swift” (Whitney Meyer), “predatory les” (Jeanna Han), and a candle-obsessed sophomore with no friends (Breezy Eslin) to become the new Kappa pledge class.
That’s not even scratching the surface of the story details and characters revealed in the premiere episode, and while it may seem like a lot — and it is — each and every main player in Scream Queens is so bold and vibrant, almost all manage to make an impression. If you’ve seen Roberts’ work in American Horror Story: Coven, you already know that she has absolutely no problem portraying a queen bee bitch and, sure enough, Roberts is pure gold when manipulating her enemies and dishing out hateful zingers. As for her underlings, there isn’t much to Grande’s character, but both Lourd and Breslin prove their worth by the end of the episode. Breslin drops some subtle and very effective hints teasing that Chanel #5 has a brain of her own, and Lourd spends most of the episode muttering, leering and reveling in her designer wardrobe, but she does get a scene around the midpoint that proves she’s got acting chops, too.
But the real revelation of the series is Samuels. She’s clearly supposed to be the hero, protagonist, final girl or whatever you want to call her, and she embodies the designation while putting a fresh spin on the stereotype. Rather than dress like the girl next door, Grace rocks a look that feels unique and very much her own. She’s also got a fiery personality, too. She’d never stoop to Chanel’s level, but also has no problem putting people in their place and standing up for herself if need be.
In addition to all the traditional sorority shenanigans, there’s also a killer on the loose. I expected Scream Queens to be satirical, but Murphy and Co. take the comedy and sarcasm above and beyond anything I could have imagined, and it works surprisingly well. When the killer strikes, rather than shut down school or take rational safety precautions, Dean Munsch tries to cover it up as best she can by playing the incident down and convincing worried folks like Grace’s father (Oliver Hudson), that his daughter is safest in the Kappa House with the sisters. It’s absolutely absurd and would raise major red flags for anyone with even the tiniest bit of common sense, but in the context of the show, it feels natural enough because the creative team have such a firm handle on tone.
Not only does the pilot episode fly by at a rip-roaring pace, but a good deal of the material will have you cracking up. On top of that, almost every single scene is memorable and serves a purpose. In fact, I can’t even pick a favorite moment because there are so many strong verbal sparring sessions and violent set pieces. As for that gore, Murphy and his team strike an absolutely brilliant balance of gross-out visuals and over-the-top humor. There’s one gag in particular that involves a tweet that plays exceptionally well on screen. However, I’d like to bet that if I read the scene on paper first, I’d instantly peg it as something that could never work. The same is true for a number of other characters and plot points featured in the pilot like Niecy Nash as the world’s worst security guard and Glen Powell as campus heartthrob Chad Radwell who talks about how great he is over and over again.
The pilot episode of Scream Queens is clearly a big winner, but as someone who’s stuck it out for all four seasons of American Horror Story, it’s hard not to be concerned about Murphy keeping it up through the season. He’s notorious for delivering highly entertaining concepts that eventually fizzle out. There’s certainly a chance that could happen here, especially considering the show has such a specific and delicate tone that requires every element of the production to be on point, but if Murphy and his team do manage to keep things this tight, Scream Queens will undoubtedly be a standout of the fall season.
Rating: ★★★★ Very Good — A Great Start
Chance of Series Survival: High
Scream Queens premieres Tuesday, September 22nd at 8pm on FOX.