About halfway through the premiere of “Scream Queens,” a girl sits in her bedroom. She receives a text on her phone that says “Brave enough to open the door?” She does and her university’s Red Devil mascot enters the room. He texts her “Do you want to dance with the devil?” After they dance, he sends another text that says “I’m going to kill you now,” to which she responds “Wait what?!?!” over text and he proceeds to stab her.
Premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Set in the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house on the fictional Wallace University campus, “Scream Queens” follows what happens when a Red-Devil-suited axe murderer descends upon the residents. The show’s ensemble has a lot of talented actors and celebrities popping up in the first two hours, many of whom have worked with Murphy before. The cast is fronted by Emma Roberts (“American Horror Story”) as the president of the sorority, and Skyler Samuels (“The Nine Lives of Chloe King”) as a freshman who rushes to feel closer to her dead mother. Jamie Lee Curtis (“Freaky Friday”) plays the dean of students of the university. Ariana Grande (“Victorious”), Lea Michele (“Glee”), Niecy Nash (“Reno 911”), Nasim Pedrad (“Saturday Night Live”), Keke Palmer (“Masters of Sex”) and Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) round out the cast.
“Scream Queen” ’s ensemble is among the strongest of the new fall pilots; however, they’re hampered by one-note characters. Roberts is probably the biggest victim of the group, as she’s saddled with a character who, at her core, is a stereotypical sorority girl. She has minions who do her work for her, holds her nose up at fatties and weirdos and orders pumpkin spice lattes. While the show attempts to play these characteristics as jokes, her character appears grating in almost every moment she’s on-screen, and Roberts can’t do much to improve upon that. Other actors such as Nash and Pedrad do well with comedic material, but don’t do much besides add a couple laughs. Even Curtis, who has accomplished a lot across her film career with thin characters, is hampered by a character who only plays different versions of angry.
The one thing that saves the show from mediocrity is that a few of the horror-comedy moments are quite effective — though not many are original. The scene described earlier is probably the only one that plays into the show’s sorority-girl elements and creates an entertaining scene. Nash also has some strong moments where she generates a lot of laughs as an incompetent security guard. However, other attempts at horror, including copious gross, bloodless deaths (it’s on FOX after all), and comedic elements (which include hazing gone-wrong and “weirdos” being creepy) that don’t land because they come off as neither scary nor funny. In particular, the show makes a lot of jokes at the expense of everyone from the deaf to the developmentally disabled that come off as mean and unnecessary, and squeeze out any of the fun from what came before.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Screw this guy, ‘Scream Queens’ sounds like a show I’d like,” then by all means give it a watch. You might find the characters to be more interesting and the horror and comedy elements to be more successful. However, for this critic, the show wastes talented cast with one-note characters and humor that comes off as mean, which overpowers some of the strong horror-comedic elements in the show.