TV Roulette is a fickle beast, it does not care about personal feelings or biases. It does not care whether a show is from creators that have a history of letting me down. It does not care about the suffering it brings. This pilot season has been an uneven one at best, and a lot of big name projects are floundering, especially on Fox. Minority Report had its episode order reduced due to poor ratings, and today’s TV Roulette selection has not been much more impressive. It is strangely appropriate that Fox’s Scream Queens is the first in real time selection for feature, with Halloween around the corner (and Killtoberfest in full swing). It’s also appropriately horrific because now I have to watch another show by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and Ian Brennan, after I finally thought I was free. Will Scream Queens prove to be a pleasant surprise or bring back traumatic flashbacks to when I still watched Glee and American Horror Story? All will be made clear right after the rundown. Also, you know, Spoilers Ahead.
TV Roulette Week 1
Scream Queens Season 1, Episode 5 ‘Pumpkin Patch’
October 13th, 2015
Have I Seen This Show Before?
To be fair, I had always planned on watching the pilot at least and even DVRed it, but, there are just so many other things to watch, and I have been burned so many times by the Ryan Murphy coalition that the pilot is still sitting unwatched in my DVR.
So I didn’t know what to expect going into this episode. As someone who has watched at least part of every one of Ryan Murphy’s TV shows (with the possible exception of Popular–I don’t remember watching it, but I watched a lot of random TV when I was younger, so it’s possible), I have experienced all the ups and downs of his particular brand of storytelling. Nip/ Tuck was really good for the first couple of seasons before it descended into incomprehensible nonsense, Glee started out strong before spiraling into a chaotic mess, The New Normal was a solid idea that never quite worked, and American Horror Story, well… the nicest thing I can say is that it was never my cup of tea.
All that experience has led me to three conclusions about Ryan Murphy shows. One, they burn bright and then fall apart. The only variation is how long that actually takes. Nip/ Tuck lasted a couple of seasons before the crash, while Glee went down right after season one–and arguably only the first half of that season is consistently really good. Two, subtlety and restraint is not something Ryan Murphy and co. believe in, which is one of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand American Horror Story. Three, despite all this, these shows still are capable of brilliance (as well as absolute dreadfulness) on an episode-by-episode basis. But once you start looking at seasons as a whole, everything falls apart. These three conclusions add up to any Ryan Murphy show being far more volatile than a lot of other shows on television, which makes it really difficult to know what to expect when watching week-to-week.
This brings us to Scream Queens, a Scream clone on campy steroids (with the bad fortune of going up against an actual Scream TV show this same year). It seems like the kind of idea that plays to Ryan Murphy and co’s strengths. And if nothing else, I can say that ‘Pumpkin Patch’ confirmed that assumption. Previous Ryan Murphy shows have struggled to keep their style from overwhelming their substance, and also with resisting the urge to reduce characters to one or two word traits you can put on a t-shirt (yes, Glee literally did this in one episode). This makes it hard for the shows to continually tell emotional stories, because the storytelling style comes into conflict with what is happening on screen. Glee in particular always struggled with that; its desire to be a pop-y show that sold covers on iTunes made it hard to consistently tell emotional stories. One week something terrible would happen to someone, but the next they would be singing another pop song as if nothing happened. Likewise, American Horror Story has struggled to maintain the proper balance between camp and serious horror, which often makes it a complete tonal mess. Scream Queens, however, doesn’t have to worry about this problem, because it is nothing but style.
This show is a pastiche of the highest order that goes over-the-top whenever it can. There’s no need to it to show anything resembling restraint, and that frees it do anything it wants, including plumbing the history of the slasher genre for a variety of purposes. No place is this more true than in the awesome title sequence. Title sequences have slowly been eliminated from a lot of television, as a lot of shows have chosen to use the time for slightly longer episode lengths and/ or to combat the fact that networks have been gradually increasing the length of commercial breaks over the years, but when done right proper titles can really add to a show. Game of Thrones‘ title sequence is one of the most memorable parts of the show, and Teen Wolf revamped its title sequence in season 2, which really help set the tone for each episode going forward. Scream Queens took the same approach by crafting a title sequence that perfectly encompasses all that this show is—camp with a dash of murder. So if nothing else, Scream Queens at least provided one of my favorite title sequences in a long time.
Of course, all this talk about style and strengths doesn’t really address the question whether the actual product is any good or not–to which the answer is mixed. The episode itself proves mildly entertaining, and quite funny at times. Skyler Samuels’s Grace has an especially funny line, “But enough about me, and my confusion and sad dead feeling inside,” after walking in on her father (Oliver Hudson) having sex with Gigi (Nasim Pedrad). The delivery is perfect, and Samuels perfectly nails her awkward confusion over seeing her father with another woman for the first time since her mother died. This, of course, is also the only realistic human emotion that actually enters the episode, no doubt an addition from writer Brad Falchuk, who has always possessed the ability to mine sincere emotion, even if only for the briefest moment. Samuels also appears to be the only character that isn’t larger than life, which makes me feel a little bad for her, because while she has to actually try and be a real person everyone else gets to do whatever the hell they want.
This is especially true for Emma Roberts, who created Chanel by taking her character from American Horror Story: Coven, Madison (who is already about as over-the-top and campy as one can imagine), and amping up the crazy sociopathy to 11. Still, while Chanel is fun, the two characters that really stood out are Abigail Breslin’s Chanel #5 and Lea Michelle’s Hester/Chanel #6. Breslin’s portrayal of the mentally unstable underling to Chanel is quite entertaining, especially when she is making toenail cookies for children on Halloween. Chanel #5 is unhinged in a unique way that feels like it will continue to manifest itself in stranger and stranger fashions as the season goes on (assuming she isn’t murdered next week, which seems unlikely). Michele’s performance is even more potentially intriguing. It always seemed strange to me that Michele would take this part, based on how it seemed in the promotional materials, but now it makes more sense. Michele’s character Hester is given a makeover and turned into Chanel #6, and there is definitely some All About Eve potential with her. Chanel #6 plays all angles in this episode as she orchestrates getting Chanel #5 to turn on Chanel, and then turns on Chanel #5 in order to further gain Chanel’s trust, a sentence whose ridiculousness cannot be overstated. Chanel #6 seems quite ready to play the game, and ruthless enough to get rid of anyone in her way. Of course, as of right now Chanel doesn’t view Chanel #6 as a threat, and it is still unclear if Chanel #6 could actually handle Chanel in a direct confrontation, but there is a depth to Chanel #6 that really made her stand out in this episode.
I still haven’t gone deep into the episode itself, but nothing really happens, as it mainly deals with the kidnapping of Zayday (Keke Palmer). This plotline channels Silence of the Lambs, as near the beginning of the episode it shows Zayday looking up at the Red Devil from a deep pit. This may seem like it is a big deal, but the episode never takes the threat of Zayday’s kidnapping seriously, which to be fair is the point. It seems that Zayday was never in danger in the first place, as the Red Devil simply wanted to have a strange Oakland Nachos date; and anyway the show generally tries to keep all of its characters strangely detached from the death happening around them. Other than Grace, of course, and by extension her love interest Pete (Diego Boneta) and her father, who spend most of the episode trying to convince people to look for Zayday and generally being stuck in the non-camp part of the show. To further illustrate how inconsequential Zayday’s capture ends up being, her escape occurs off-screen and then is explained back to us through flashback.
Still, this detached comedic attitude towards murder kind of works at times, especially when the Red Devil tries to kill Chanel #5 and her two boyfriends Roger (Aaron Rhodes) and Dodger (Austin Rhodes). As they attempt to run through a maze that (according to Chanel) is an exact replica of the maze from The Shining, they force her to chose between the two of them even while a crazy person in a devil costume chases after them with a pair of hedge shears. Chanel chooses Rodger, and the path he insists is the correct one, while Dodger runs off on his own to ultimately be murdered. Other than Chanel #5, however, no one particularly cares about Dodger’s death. It’s just par for the course. After all, they are in a slasher movie, and people are going to die, so no need to get that upset about it. At the same time, if the show isn’t going to care about its characters, I certainly don’t know why I should. Overall, ‘Pumpkin Patch’ proved to be far more entertaining than it had any right to be, but also completely inconsequential and meaningless. Which for better or worse is probably the intention.
Notes and Observations
- So Gigi is apparently working with the Red Devil. I am not sure how much I am supposed to care about this, considering how uninteresting Gigi appears to be as a character.
- Jamie Lee Curtis is in this show, and hopefully generally given more to do than she was in this episode. Still, she does look to be having a good old time, and does reinforce the fact that for all his fault, Ryan Murphy continues to give fun roles to older actresses whom Hollywood has stopped utilizing properly.
- Also, this show illustrates Murphy and co’s dedication to the strange, especially their willingness to allow actors and actresses to really explore unique roles that cannot be found anywhere else. Take Breezy Eslin’s Jennifer, who is obsessed with candles, which is a surprisingly entertaining character trait. It’s just unfortunate that the writing hardly ever offers any help to the actors and actresses, who often seem to be fighting against bad writing instead of being uplifted by good writing.
- Maybe all sororities should add ‘able to escape from a serial killer without any help’ to their requirements to be chapter president. You got to admit each of those presidents would be badass.
- The visual style of this show is awesome, and so on point. It proves that the creators really know the genre they are playing with, but makes it sad how often they seem to misunderstand the genre from a writing standpoint at the same time.
Episode Grade: B-
Would I Watch More? Hmm, there was nothing wrong with this episode necessarily, but at the same time it wasn’t really that good. There is so much else to watch that, while I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to watching another episode or so throughout the season, it is not something I will go out of my way to see. The problem is, I get the sense that this may be the way a lot of viewers are feeling right now, which is why Scream Queens is struggling in the ratings. Considering how expensive this show probably is, that doesn’t bode well for its future prospects.
That’s it for this edition of TV Roulette. The wheel of fate and random numbers proved to have a cruel sense of humor this time in forcing me to watch another show by Ryan Murphy and Co. Will the numbers continue to laugh at me? Find out in the next edition.