If you watched the Emmys this past Sunday, you might have been surprised to hear Ryan Murphy’s name mentioned as American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson collected numerous awards. Murphy, best known for being the creator and showrunner of Glee and American Horror Story, was also the driving force behind The People vs OJ, serving as executive producer and director for multiple episodes. The People vs OJ was a masterclass in television: tightly written, smart, evocative, well acted and profound. Essentially, it is the least Ryan Murphy-esque show to have Ryan Murphy’s name in the credits. Murphy’s MO is usually camp, outrageousness, incredible ensemble casts with not enough material to go around, some genuinely brilliant moments and too many conflicting ideas happening at once. With that in mind, Scream Queens is perhaps the most Ryan Murphy-esque show on his resumé.
Scream Queens debuted last year with an all-star cast and creator Ryan Murphy boasting that he invented a new genre: the comedy-horror. Horror-comedy is, of course, a popular and beloved genre that holds everything from Shaun of the Dead to Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but perhaps Murphy was unaware. Or perhaps he thought by flipping the order, and focusing on comedy first, he was doing something new. Regardless, Scream Queens started in fall of 2015 with a group of bratty sorority girls called the Chanels being terrorized by a serial killer on campus, with everyone being a suspect in the murders. The show was built around the mystery of who the killer was, with many of actors not knowing as well.
It didn’t really matter who the killer was, though. The show was only mildly interested in a serial killer, devoting just as much screen time to a mystery about a baby born at a party, and making jokes about Taylor Swift, sorority girls, Nick Jonas’ continued queerbaiting, security guards, frat boys and pumpkin spice lattes. It wasn’t a comedy-horror, really, it was a grab bag of anything Ryan Murphy thought could be funny or interesting. Characters would seemingly be killed and then come back, clues would lead nowhere and character traits would appear and disappear at will – like when bitchy, racist sorority leader Chanel #1 (Emma Roberts) suddenly becomes a feminist who beats up a man who tells her to smile more. All in all, the show was a tasteless, offensive and sometimes hilarious mess.
Season two started last night and offered a marginally different story with the same characters. Unlike American Horror Story, which is an anthology with actors playing new characters each season, Scream Queens is going to take some of the same characters and transplants them into a new serial killer scenario each year. The Chanels and sorority sister Zayday Williams are back, now working as medical students at a hospital run by Dean Munsch (now Doctor Munsch), played by the original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.
The previous season had ended with the Chanels in jail, framed for the murders caused by Lea Michele’s character, Dean Munsch launching a successful series of books and Zayday (Keke Palmer) just wanting to transfer schools and not deal with this nonsense anymore. These story lines are quickly wrapped up: the Chanels are exonerated in a Making a Murderer style documentary that exposes the real killer, but then are forced to get lowly maintenance style jobs after being disowned by their rich families, while Zayday has transferred to a med school. Dean Munch has numerous successful books and is a multi-millionaire, for some reason, and announced in a TED talk she is going to fund a hospital to cure incurable diseases. She recruits her former students to join the hospital, alongside a mean nurse (Kirstie Alley) and two bizarre doctors: John Stamos, a surgeon who performed his own hand transplant after getting his own caught in a garbage disposal, and Taylor Lautner, who has a mysterious past and is corpse-like cold. The hospital’s first patient is played by SNL’s Cecily Strong, a woman who is covered in hair, suffering from hypertrichosis or “werewolf disease.” (A nod to Taylor Lautner’s werewolf past?)
Much of the first episode is spent introducing these characters to their new setting and watching their personalities (particularly the over the top mean and entitled Chanel #1) adjust to working in a hospital and trying to cure patients. It’s only the first and last few minutes of the episode that pay any attention to the “Scream Queens” plot – in a 1985 flashback, doctor Jerry O’Connell kills a patient during a Halloween party by dumping his body in a swamp (the hospital is built on a toxic swamp, because of course) and in present day, someone wearing the same Halloween costume comes to kill Cecily Strong and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin, easily the most mocked part of season one).
This puts season two off to a slow and strange start. The premise of the show is supposed to be a comedic take on slasher horror, and yet season two seems more interested in being a comedic take on hospital dramas. The strange disease with simple and insane last minute diagnosis is something straight out of House M.D., and the flirtation between Chanel #1 and John Stamos’ hot doctor is all Grey’s Anatomy. The slasher elements are lifted directly from the first season: a masked killer, then the Red Devil and now the Green Meanie, in almost identical costumes to boot, and a flashback mystery involving a murder coverup and (presumably) someone out for revenge.
Chanel #1 was the standout from the first season. She was over the top in every possible way, evil and bitchy but filthy rich and dripping in designer items, like if Regina George powered up. She was hateable but fun to watch, and season two looks ready to bank on that being enough to keep us tuned in. The mystery, the scares and even the pop culture references are on hold right now, but Chanel is still front and centre. As fun (and gif-able!) as she is, I’m not sure if it’s enough to keep me entertained for another season. I’m going to need some more thrills, kills and jokes at Taylor Swift’s expense to stay on board.