Sunday, December 20, 2015

Scream Queens

Season One of Scream Queens, Fox's star-studded horror comedy, has been nominated for two awards (Golden Globes and Satellite) and won another (the Critic's Choice TV Award in 2015 for Most Exciting New Series). In spite of a declining audience throughout Season One, it appears to have enough of a following that Fox will likely renew it for another season.

If you are not familiar with Scream Queens, imagine the Simpsons, Mean Girls, and Scream mashed together. The result is a funny, satirical, shocking, violent, crude, and occasionally insightful comedy/horror show that intends to offer a cutting commentary on college culture. That's the intent, anyway.

Scream Queens takes place on a college campus where coeds are being killed rather horribly (if not creatively). All the girls in the featured sorority scream a lot - thus the title of the show - but nobody sheds a tear. Well, not real ones anyway.
Most of the people we meet are entertainingly dysfunctional – which is a generous way of giving props to a witty script showing how cruel, self-serving, shallow and greedy people can be. They don’t really care if others live or die as much as if they will sleep with them, get them a good job, or help them marry into money. Most have sold their souls for the mere hope of gaining a sliver of the world. If you are looking for a prequel to This Is The End (and I don’t know why you would be), look no further. 

The New York Times describes Scream Queens as “identity entertainment,“ a story that builds on “representations of (and gags about) gender, sexuality, race, class and whatever other categories they deem worthy of breaking down.” A number of stand-up comedians have recently noted how college crowds will not laugh at shocking, edgy jokes because they are so afraid of offending someone. Scream Queens has no such reservations. The script is fast, biting, clever, remarkably crude, and aimed at just about every 'identity' you can imagine.

Brad  Falchuk, one of the co-creators, told the Hollywood Reporter that not only is the show “a commentary on youth culture and college culture,” but characters like Chanel Oberlin have been created purposefully. Before I get to a longer explanation from Falchuk, you should know a few things about Chanel. She assigns demeaning nicknames to almost everybody, limits her sorority to keep out “fatties and ethnics,” keeps her revolting boyfriend just so she can marry into money and prestige, builds an adoring fan base by lavishing them with outlandish gifts, covers up murder after murder because they might derail her life, and is convinced it is her lot is to have everything revolve around her. Falchuk says of Chanel:

“Part of what’s fun about her is that she is kind of that mean girl. You’ll get backstory and find out a few things about her and understand why she’s doing that. There are moments when she says, "You know, maybe I shouldn’t be this awful." But I think she’s more interesting because she doesn’t feel she needs to be redeemed. She’s not looking to learn anything. She’s looking to get what she wants, and in the process of doing that, she starts to think, "Maybe what I want right now is actually to be connected to this girl, to be nice to this girl." So it’s not about what she should do but what she wants right now.”

When I first started watching Season One, I saw potential for a clever morality play. Showing us someone who doesn't want to learn, doesn't think she needs to be redeemed, and does what she wants to do instead of what she ought to do is not a bad idea - if the story is told in such a way that holds these things up for our instruction and not just our amusement. Not everyone is convinced that Mr. Falchuk's attempt at cultural commentary through characters such as Chanel was effective. A writer in the Atlantic astutely noted:

 “It would be one thing if the show itself didn’t seem to subscribe to Chanel’s worldview, but the cruelty with which it treats some innocent characters and the stereotypical way it portrays others (lazy black security guards? Curtis as a sexually desperate, bitter veteran of ’70s feminism?) just isn’t fun. Murphy etc. would likely reply by saying the show is satire of a genre that’s inherently pigheaded and a system—college Greek life—that often thrives on unfairness. Others might say he’s just reveling in and amplifying racist/sexist/every-ist tropes to a primetime network audience.” 

That is, unfortunately, what the show seems to offer in spite of Mr. Flachuk's intention. Scream Queens’s merit – and I’m using that term loosely – comes almost solely from using it as a means of pop culture analysis. Does it reflect a desire for the freedom to be offensively blunt in a culture overly concerned with hurting people’s feelings? Is it bringing what we all know (or suspect) about the ugliness of human nature to light? Is it just playing up meanness, sex and violence to make a quick buck? Is it an example of a satire perpetrating the very things it is trying to address?

 ‘Yes' to all, I suppose, which is too bad. Perhaps Season Two will find its way more clearly.

No comments: