TV Tonight: Bloody comedy ‘Scream Queens’ to debut on Fox

Funny in spots, filled with in-jokes and loaded with allusions to classic B-movie horror thrillers, expensive new Fox comedy thriller is a mixed bag in overstuffed 2-hour premiere.

Like Monty Python's parrot, this Kappa House sorority pledge is no more. She is a former pledge, but the pivot point of "Scream Queens," debuting on Fox tonight. (Image from official Fox trailer)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2015 – It’s here at last! (At least for those of you who have been taking in all the preview hype.) We’re talking about Fox’s brand-new, classy-looking thriller-comedy-trivia-quiz-mad-slasher series “Scream Queens.” It debuts tonight in a two-hour special that’s actually the series pilot and first episode rolled into one.

Attendees at this year’s 2015 Comic-Con actually got to see the premiere this summer. The rest of us will get a chance to see it on our local Fox channels beginning at 9 p.m. EDT tonight. Here’s a sample:

Tonight’s episode launches, appropriately, in the posh bathroom of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house on the campus of fictional Wallace University sometime back in 1995. (Alums of New Orleans’ Tulane University will immediately recognize this series’ external shots). Here, with a wild sorority party in full swing below, an unfortunate partier delivers a baby in the antique bathtub and promptly expires, requiring the exasperated sorority sisters to somehow cover things up while not missing too much of the party.

Fast-forward to 2015. Yep, it’s 20 years later, and Kappa House is now run by an even more heartless social climbing batch of sisters, headed up by snooty Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) and her obsequious wanna-be minions, Chanel Nos. 2, 3 and 5. (You saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

Those of us who used to thrive on mad slasher movies back in the day, and perhaps still do, will enter right into this not-so-brave new world, immediately recognizing that this 20-year hiatus between acts means that someone, like maybe the dead girl’s kid, whoever he/she may be, will be back for revenge, and indeed, someone is. Bodies start dropping one by one, apparently done in by someone stalking the campus dressed in a tacky Red Devil suit.

This new 15-episode series is created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, who previously scored a success with their long-running series, “Glee.” According to one source, Murphy has stated that the series is a little bit like Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” in which one character is whacked in every episode as we try to figure out who the killer is. In the series’ final first-season ending episode, the mystery will be solved.

Theoretically, from that point until the day the series dies, select characters from each season will return in the next, along with new faces and a new locale, only to become embroiled in yet another short season of TV mayhem.

That’s the theory, anyway. We had a chance to preview this evening’s opening innings and, candidly, we’re not quite sure this new offering is going to catch on.

On the plus side, the series is lavishly filmed and produced. Costuming and characters, particularly the cliquish and snobbish sorority sisters, are perfect for an essentially satirical series, reminiscent, in a way, of that old classic Vincent Price horror spoof, “Theatre of Blood,” whose cast is loaded with snotty, eccentric theater critics and a beleaguered, washed-up actor who wishes them all dead. But theatrically, of course.

In “Scream Queens,” we get, in short order, a nearly perfect string of B-movie mad-slasher clichés, such as the mysterious killer invariably sneaking up on his/her next clueless victim, who doesn’t figure out the danger until he/she is a second or two away from expiring. There are allusions to Jason, Michael Myers, Freddie and who knows who else, not to mention a harvesting scene right out of “Motel Hell” and plenty of other scenes that only a true mad-slasher movie aficionado has already memorized and internalized.

As in such spoofs, acting here is over the top, sometimes stridently so, perhaps stretching to achieve the status of high camp. Verisimilitude is given short shrift, and minor things like legal details—at least thus far—seem to get dispatched if they interfere with the plot line, limiting the age appeal of this series, most likely, to those under 40, which it pretty much today’s lusted-after demographic anyway.

SNL alum Nasim Pedrad and original Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis also star in new Fox horror sitcom-whodunit. (PR photo courtesy Fox)
SNL alum Nasim Pedrad and original Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis also star in new Fox horror sitcom-whodunit. (PR photo courtesy Fox)

Giving the series at least a touch of dignity, history and class is the original scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, cast here in the role of the shady, officious, oversexed Dean Munsch, who’s targeted the upper-crust Kappa House for destruction, à la Dean Wormer of that classic “Animal House.” (Clearly, Curtis’ recent dalliance with Jethro Gibbs on NCIS is over.)

Anchoring the cast is tough good girl and Kappa pledge Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), who is alternately cowed by and furious at Chanel for her heartlessness, snobbery and willingness to overlook little things like murder as she strives to line up a career in TV newscasting. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.) Her perhaps boyfriend, Pete Martinez (Diego Boneta) also comes into play. Fancying himself as an investigative reporter, due to his work on the student newspaper, Pete enlists Grace’s aid in sleuthing out the long-running, murderous legacy of Kappa House.

Also starring as the sorority’s legal rep is Nasim Pedrad, formerly a popular “Saturday Night Live” cast member famed for her ditzy portrayal of Kim Kardashian before moving on to TV sitcoms.

Our assessment of this series, based on the initial episodes airing tonight: 50-50. If you’re crazy about horror movies and horror spoofs, this one’s probably for you, particularly if you like to talk trash and trivia during network TV’s usually dreary desert of commercial timeouts.

If you’re looking for something you can sink your teeth into, comedy or otherwise, you may want to take a pass on “Scream Queens.” Possibly the series will settle down after the first pair of episodes, both of which try too hard to lay on the blood and the comedy while not doing nearly enough to develop the actual characters of this year’s ensemble to the point where they can become a bit more real—and sympathetic—than the cardboard cartoon cut-outs they seem to be impersonating right now.

One final problem “Scream Queens” will face tonight: It launches right on top of CBS-TV’s newest hit spinoff series, “NCIS: New Orleans,” which begins at 9. With a lead-in from the follow-up to last season’s NCIS cliffhanger (on CBS at 8), a great many potential viewers may be tuned into Jethro Gibbs and company tonight and take a pass on Fox’s ambitious “Scream Queen” debut.

“Scream Queens” debuts on Fox with a special two-hour episode tonight at 9 EDT on most Fox TV stations. Check local listings for times and stations in your area.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17