It took four episodes, but Scream Queens has finally made its first real trip to the land of “What am I watching?” and “Who is this show even for?”—territory that comes as a bonus with Ryan Murphy shows. The disjointed results of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk (who wrote this episode), and Ian Brennan’s different approaches to writing and storytelling really rear their ugly head here, with episode reading like one that belongs two or three episodes after last week’s Brennan-penned “Chainsaw.” Despite the day within the episode starting only moments after the previous episode, the way characters behave in this episode is like they have moved on so far past what happened just before. To say it all goes from zero to 60 would ignore how manic Scream Queens already is; instead, it goes from 60 to 120 with absolutely no rhyme or reason.
Even without being a leap (or descent) from Brennan’s script to Falchuk’s, “Haunted House” is all over the place from the very beginning. The Chanel-O-Ween segment sets the scattered tone of the entire episode, and it’s not Emma Roberts’ fault at all. A lot of “Haunted House” has characters or the show itself make message statements—which peaks with the entire cafeteria scene—that speak for the writers (or, at the very least here, Falchuk) and try to get a point across. The best (and genuinely good) version of that is Earl Grey’s comment on the Greek system, and the most bizarre version is Chad Radwell’s speech on millennials.
The Chanel-O-Ween segment, however, has too many frustrating points that it wants to get across and instead, instantly gets the ball rolling on the “Who is this show even for?” train. Chanel Oberlin is an awful person. That’s not even slightly called into question until the episode’s cafeteria scene. She says terrible things, and that’s the joke. (It’s actually at its easiest to accept in most of this episode, because she’s not really in as prominent of a role here as one would assume.) Her being this way and saying these things is still sort of the joke here, but there’s the added factor of having Chanel fans also be their own shade of “terrible.” The segment—which identifies the Chanel fans by “Frumpy Girl” label in the end credits—has Chanel say horrible things barely disguised as charitable and sweet, while she gives them actual dead body parts, rotten pumpkins, and blood, and they lap it all up like the Taylor Swift (and her Swiftmas) this segment is parodying. But that’s not all the show is mocking, as there’s also the frumpy girls, who are considered the most pathetic people. One could maybe argue that Chanel Oberlin is being mocked too, for being so delusional and seeing herself as bigger than she is, but that’s only briefly part of the joke. One moment, the segment considers Chanel Oberlin Taylor Swift status, the next, it’s Regina George at the very least, then the next, it’s just her as the sort of big fish in a small pond that she really is:
The rare times the segment is self-aware of how ridiculous Chanel herself is, like with that GREEK Lady magazine cover or the mini-car, there is something good there. Plus, the one-two punch of the Chanel fan screaming “Ahh, this box is just filled with blood!” with the quick cut to the girl with her hands covered in blood makes for a funny sight gag. But for the most part, this segment is the mean-spirited nature of the show popping back up after its delightful absence in last week’s superior episode. The main joke boils down to Chanel’s fans being pathetic for being so overzealous, just like Taylor Swift’s fans (as Deaf Taylor Swift already made abundantly clear in the first two episodes). But you know who else could fall into such a category of fanaticism? Hardcore Glee fans (Gleeks, if you will), the types who went to the concerts, the types who attended those mall tours.
Last week, I called the Chad/Chanel scenes something akin to “a Glee relationship on even more speed,” and this segment follows a pattern that might be a major part of Scream Queens’ DNA: It feels very much like the showrunners’ attempts to bury Glee and throw it under the bus as this show moves forward. I’m not even trying to call Glee perfect, but it feels even more like low-hanging fruit when the people who created it make sure to kick it, just to prove that their current show is not the same show. It’s upsettingly cynical, and it also make the comments (of which there are many) comparing watching Ryan Murphy shows to embarking on an abusive relationship take on a new meaning.
Starting off-kilter is barely the only problem with the episode though, as this is one episode where there’s not even a fun kill to keep the audience intrigued while boring nonsense happens on screen. The kill of Jennifer Aspen’s Mandy is played as a straight-up horror kill, aiming for suspense, but wildly missing the mark simply because the audience expects a fun twist to the kill… and never receives it. The other shoe never drops, and by the time the kill’s over, as is the audience’s interest in Mandy. Her ultimately ending up hanging outside the haunted house towards the end doesn’t retroactively add fun to that kill.
Then, with the exception of their running scared scene in the haunted house, the Hester/Chad scenes are especially terrible and the biggest example of the show just moving from 60 to 120 (or point A to point Q) with its characters. On a basic level, if you’re a person who’s only watched this episode, you’d probably have no idea that Chad or any of his fraternity brothers (besides the one who lost his arms) was attacked by two Red Devils and lived to tell the tale. Instead, the episode decides to double down on his morbid sex kinks (that, based on Chanel’s reactions to them, supposedly never existed prior to the serial killings) and paint Hester as single entendre-spewing succubus with plans of usurping both Chanel and Zayday and taking over KKT. Last week’s explanatory joke about Hester being in complete and utter pain without her brace was apparently enough to hand-wave any thing the character does and plans to do, whether it’s fighting off catcalling men or having anal sex with Chad Radwell. Why? Because that’s what the script needs, and that’s all that drives this episode.
By the way, this episode has a fight sequence in the name of feminism and sisterhood—from the Chanels—and it’s actually the most out-of-nowhere thing to happen in all four of these episodes. Chanel talks about how women being treated like meat is just as bad as women being murdered; Chanel No. 3 calls out Tommy, the default misogynist in a show that has Chad Radwell and the other Dicky Dollar Scholars (besides Earl Grey), with the question, “You’re gonna tell us to smile now?” If this moment is supposed to give these characters dimension, it misses the mark greatly, especially by doing it with the characters on this show who contribute the most to a culture of woman-hating. This isn’t Grace and Zayday calling out the status quo—this is the most hateful character on the show and her lapdogs (even though No. 3 spends a good portion of the episode undercutting Oberlin, a role No. 5 has been responsible for previously—because they’re ultimately interchangeable, it would seem). From the moment Chanel concedes to Hester’s minor point about eating real food to the end of the fight (scored to Belinda Carlisle’s “Mad About You”), it’s a whirlwind of moments that don’t feel like they belong anywhere in Scream Queens, at least not this early on and not from these characters. Nothing has been earned, especially since this is a scene that begins with written, blatant racism from those same characters:
Speaking of racism, as soon as the 1988 KKT called the “African” sorority “Omicron Omicron Omicron,” I paused to write in my notes: “Like ‘ooo, girl’?” Then that actually turned out to be the “joke,” and it almost ruined an otherwise impervious Zayday/Denise Hemphill scene.
As for the music (which is a big deal in the fight scene), that’s actually more hit than miss in this episode, though 1988 Denise Hemphill dancing to Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” is a precious moment. However, watch scenes like the Grace/Wes scene in his classroom, where she confronts him about her possibly being the bathtub baby; watch that scene and just listen to the music. It sounds like the score to a sex scene in an ‘80s John Hughes film, not the actual scene that’s occurring onscreen. And when Halloween music is playing as the girls are making Jack-O-Lanterns, it’s all there really is to focus on. I pointed out last week how the music can be overbearing, but this week appears to have made a challenge out of that and won (which is actually a loss for the show).
“Haunted House” is also the episode where exposition is the spice of life, as the episode has an early bit from Munsch (about the faulty logistics of her even being the Red Devil) that barely sticks the landing, both in Jamie Lee Curtis’ delivery—in an episode that is full of monologues that rarely work—and Oliver Hudson’s far-too-dry rebuttal still pointing the finger at her. In a show where the mean girl is the lead, Grace being the supposed final girl translates to her mostly being around for exposition, and that’s absolutely the case here—whether it be in the form of her saying what her father’s motive would be for possibly being the (a) killer (despite it being an obvious possible revenge motive to an observant audience) or explaining her and Pete’s pretty self-explanatory Halloween costumes in the beginning of one of the most awkward set of scenes in the episode:
“I just can’t believe How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days is your favorite movie too.”
The fact that the episode has to have that line to explain the pair’s wardrobes, instead of letting the audience figure it out (either from the couple’s pose when Mandy opens the door or just as an Easter egg for fans of the movie) or waiting until they explain it to Mandy (which ultimately meant they didn’t have to have that terrible exchange in the first place), is really an insult to every one’s intelligence. Then again, so is the idea that that movie would be a straight, college-aged guy’s favorite movie, especially in 2015. All it really leads to is the question of whether or not Ryan Murphy and company are using the Hudson siblings to try to reel Goldie Hawn into this web of television shows. Based on all the Gwyneth Paltrow references in Popular, the answer is probably yes.
If nothing else, those scenes and this episode make a very strong case for Diego Boneta actually being the worst casting choice on the show, alongside Abigail Breslin. Besides the obvious of him having no chemistry with Skyler Samuels, this episode insists on having him continue on with an absolutely dreadful Matthew McConaughey “impression,” and then with a mildly offensive Denise Hemphill/Niecy Nash “impression” as the two of them speak in unison. At first, it’s hard to even tell both cases of vocal monkey bars (barely gymnastics) are happening, but once you notice it, you’d wish you hadn’t. As for the lack of chemistry with his own love interest—the only character he’s even been asked to have any sort of chemistry with—it’s even more apparent how awful that is when this episode focuses more on DDS brother Earl Grey (and his relationship with Zayday).
That’s because the very small good in this episode really only highlights how bad the large amount bad is. Based on the promo for next week’s episode, at least one Red Devil decides to get their Buffalo Bill on in keeping Zayday in a pit, but before that, this is really a Zayday episode (when it’s good). Zayday and Denise Hemphill’s scenes remain a joy, both individually (Niecy Nash really elevates the material, and Keke Palmer can too, like in the scene with terribly unfunny 911 responder) and together—
Zayday: “It’s for the fundraiser. We’re trying to raise money.”
Denise Hemphill: “More like raise the body count. With murder.”
—but this episode’s introduction of Zayday/Earl Grey as a new pairing makes the main pairing (Grace/Pete) look even worse. The scene the two have together at the coffee shop (which begins as one of point A to point Q, given the characters’ lack of previous interaction) is one of the few genuinely earnest scenes that works in this episode (and show), with the two characters actually having something to say about the Greek system (and really, the show as a whole).
Earl Grey: “The Greek system will be obsolete in a generation if things don’t change. But I believe you and I represent that change.”
Of course, it’s slightly ruined by Zayday’s cause of choice unsurprisingly being sickle cell anemia, but in just one scene, the two of them have an instant chemistry that’s not at all shared by the main couple of the season. This episode actually makes a great case for Zayday to be the final girl and audience surrogate character of the show, which is part of what’s so frustrating about the show; there’s no way there was ever a chance of that happening on this show in the first place, and that’s because someone needed to be black best friend.
So, yes, this is only episode four of a series’ first season. As a Ryan Murphy production, there are all of these expectations that come with the series’ very existence, and it’s very easy to forget that and to just pile on the show, expecting a more seasoned approach. That’s definitely the case here, and I’m aware of that, especially when the series premiered. There are obviously plenty of kinks for the show to work out.
But “Chainsaw” appeared to realize that, and with that episode, it looked like the show would slowly improve as the season went on. So watching “Haunted House” is like watching the erasure of that improvement, simply by being an even bigger mess than the show started with in the pilot. The tone is uneven throughout, and what ever the show wants to be is completely lost. Is it funny? Is it campy? Is it surreal? Is it horror? Is it gross? Is it melodramatic?
Think about the Grace/Pete/Mandy scene again. As Mandy is talking about how they were all traumatized by the bathtub baby and death, could you imagine such a thing doing the same to the current KKTs? From the pilot flashbacks, those girls were supposedly as heartless as the ones now, yet the present day girls barely even find trauma in murder. Why? Why is anyone acting the way they do at any nearly point in this episode? Does Brad Falchuk have an answer? Because if he does, it never made its way to the screen.
- Scream Queen Of The Week: Chad and Hester both earned their screaming stripes this week, all things considered. This is only because of their literal screams while running scared and the subsequent scene actually trying to warn people.
- “I’m a future network news anchor.” If these KKT are all so network news-bound, wouldn’t they know not to do so much discriminating stuff (like the Chanel-O-Ween video—as Munsch pointed out in the pilot, no one is that way in the real world) in public for a future in, well, anything? The episode does a Fox News joke, but Fox News being the endgame isn’t exactly treated as the gospel for these girls.
- “Denise Hemphill was one step ahead of the po’ po’. Yes! Haha! Shondell—if you can hear me in that Best Buy parking lot in the sky, I am so sorry that I pushed you out of my car and drove off real scared. But I promise you, by Halloween night, I will avenge your face stabbing, baby girl. Okay? I, Denise Hemphill, is gonna solve this crime.” First of all, Denise Hemphill is the hero of this story. Second of all, the direction for this scene from Brad Buecker is pretty great, as Denise Hemphill prays to the heavens above. Third of all, this scene is part of the episode’s string of monologues that people just let happen. At no point does anyone interrupt her—they just stand and watch, expressionless.
- As much as I like Zayday, I would absolutely love it if Denise Hemphill was right about her all along.
- Mandy (or “Jane Doe,” as the cops call her) confirms that the baby was a girl, not a boy, which crosses Chad Radwell off the list. Why, exactly, was Grace so adamant that it was a baby boy in the first place? Because of Chanel, who only spoke from hearsay? Also, do police stations just let you read police reports if you show up at the station?
- For those of you who only read these reviews for potential Chloe King references, you’re in luck. Grace Phipps plays young Mandy, which means it’s a two-for-one in me mentioning Chloe King and April Young from The Vampire Diaries.
- The scene with Chanel sharpening knives is funnier in theory, but this episode again goes way too fast (without logic) with things. Why would Chanel worry about Zayday winning in the presidency the first place, especially since Chanel is the one who can bribe people not to turn her in for murdering a person right in front of them? Having it be because of her belief in “black privilege”—“And now Zayday’s going to win because we live in the age of Obama!”—doesn’t cut it.
- This week, Wes’ concept of being a film professor is getting aroused by Children Of The Corn. Based on these past two episodes, Wes is a really terrible film professor whose idea of teaching is putting in a horror movie (and nothing else) and saying a couple of creepy sentences about it. Meanwhile, he has students (or, a student) eating a candle like popcorn. He must be stopped.
- Speaking of being stopped, Munsch’s blatant sexual harassment of Wes could stand to be stopped. She has/had Chad Radwell. What more does she need?
- There is new mythology to the story, with the Hag of Shady Lane. Based on deductive reasoning, the hag took care of the baby, at least for a time. Also, based on the final scene of the episode, the hag is Gigi.