Series co-creator Ryan Murphy has described “Scream Queens” as something new, but his latest Fox series is really something old and something borrowed — largely from his own filmography. Basically, the zanier aspects of “Glee” meet the anthological component and bloodletting of “American Horror Story,” birthing a Fox series that makes all the key players both suspects and potential victims, albeit with somewhat more wit than MTV’s similar adaptation “Scream.” For anyone who watched “Glee” wondering what it would be like to see the Cheerios get skewered, this is probably for you. Others, like these characters, should tread cautiously.
Although no one bursts into song (at least, not during the two-hour premiere), it’s hard to escape the sensation that Murphy and collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan have channeled their whimsical formula from their high-school-set show into this collegiate one — adding horror and genre spoofing to an ingredient list that again includes a healthy dose of broad comedy.
Drawing from “Horror Story’s” playbook, the series begins with a 20-year-old flashback regarding a bad thing that happened at the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house. Flash forward to the present day, and imperious sorority queen Chanel (Emma Roberts) is so dismissive of her minions that she won’t even bother to learn their names, giving them numbers instead, up to the inevitable Chanel No. 5. Similarly, she abuses the house cleaning woman by haughtily referring to her as “White Mammy.”
In a rather “Animal House”-like wrinkle, the Kappas find themselves squarely in the sights of the university’s Dean (Jamie Lee Curtis). Unable to revoke their charter, she does the next best thing by forcing the snooty, stick-thin Greeks to admit the kind of undesirables — as Chanel puts it, “fatties and ethnics” — they would normally shun and deride. (“Glee’s” Lea Michele is among the outcasts.)
Entering the mix, and serving as a sort-of-surrogate for the audience, is Grace (Skyler Samuels), who arrives at school with her suspiciously widowed dad (Oliver Hudson). Not only is Grace eager to join the house, but she coaxes her roommate (Keke Palmer) to accompany her. Still, Kappa’s history quickly becomes its present, with a few not-to-be-spoiled casualties, as well as some twists intended to keep the audience guessing.
It’s all executed with cheeky style, but there’s also a too-familiar quality that extends to the show’s political targets, with the snotty sorority types expressing their admiration for Cindy McCain and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, and Chanel citing her desire to become the next Diane Sawyer. One of the frat boys, meanwhile, signals his stupidity by professing his fondness for the films of Michael Bay.
Murphy and his creative brain trust are extremely good at packaging these projects for maximum media impact, adorning them with all kinds of shiny objects, provocative or nostalgic casting choices and sly references. Moreover, there’s something wonderfully liberating about being able to kill off characters, knowing that in success you simply reboot the whole thing under the same banner, without needing to worry about skidding off the rails the way “Glee” did.
Get past the baubles, though, and the series simply feels too derivative to be truly exciting or particularly suspenseful. So while the casting and format should be enough to help “Scream Queens” make some initial noise ratings-wise, creatively speaking, there’s just not much here to shout about.