WARNING: Mild spoilers up to episode three of Scream Queens
As the clock began counting down to 9pm last night, I realized something: watching Scream Queens was becoming a chore.
I really wanted to like Scream Queens, even if it was primarily due to hype. Going by the posters and teasers, it looked like a cheeky send-up of the slasher film genre, with dashes of Murphy’s trademark (although heavy-handed) cultural commentary for good measure. I figured it would collapse onto itself like all Ryan Murphy television shows eventually do, but at least it would provide fun, easy-to-quote-and-GIF moments (like Emma Roberts’ brilliant “what fresh hell is this” line).
Three episodes in, I now know why Scream Queens isn’t as enjoyable as it appeared to be; it’s really, really mean.
It’s a strange criticism, but one distracting enough to explain why the show isn’t the ratings behemoth everyone anticipated. In a post-Glee world, where anti-bullying campaigns pop up during Teen Titans Go! marathons, it’s strange and off-putting to watch a comedy that revels in misery as much as Scream Queens does. The show’s main characters, especially Emma Roberts’s Chanel Oberlin, say the most vile, hateful, and racist things imaginable, without any sense of irony or humor that could offer some justification. It’s as if Ryan Murphy and company, after years of empowering the outsider on Glee, are using the show as their own version of Regina George’s burn book. It’ overwhelming, first dealing with the shock of what was said, and then the subsequent drop in your stomach when you realize just how tacky and offensive it was. Sometimes “tacky and offensive” can work, but the show can be so self-serious in its delivery that it’s hard to appreciate the humor even when it’s obvious.
It would be an entirely different situation if the mean “humor” had some subversive context, informing the character or critiquing the culture the show is set in. Scream Queens doesn’t do that, going instead for the cheap shock of calling a sorority house maid “white mammy” and letting that offensive-for-so-many-reasons “joke” stand without any attempt to critique, or even comment, on it. Another unnecessarily mean-spirited and (and really, really unfunny) moment was Chanel saying she needed a whiter marker to write some other insult on Zayday (KeKe Palmer). Frankly, it’s troubling just how aggressively spiteful the show can be, especially in regards to race. It’s also tiresome and dull, watching these thinly-drawn characters continuously hurl insults at each other with nothing substantial behind it. As a viewer, it sucks all of the joy out of a show that needs it to be a proper guilty pleasure. And let’s be real; Scream Queens solely exists to be a guilty pleasure.
It’s funny that I publish this the day after the latest episode, the first to hold my full attention. It was also the first episode that wasn’t trying to be aggressively mean. In fact, the best moments of Scream Queens so far have been the lighter, subversive fare I was expecting, such as Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande) and her iMessage and Twitter play-by-play of her own murder, or the blood oath seance. Niecy Nash, playing security guard Denise, is a consistent scene-stealing delight without ever resorting to the cold name-calling of the main characters. It goes to show just how unnecessary the show’s meanness is to its success; it’s actually an impediment. Sure, there are plenty of other issues that affect all Ryan Murphy shows, like weak characterization and haphazard plotting, but that’s to be expected. If Scream Queens is really going to succeed past the season, it needs to lighten up, a lot.