Flash back to my sophomore year of college. I’m still watching Glee, for some reason, when the club announces that they’re going to put on a school play. And it’s going to be Rocky Horror. I turn to my friend Alex and mutter, “they’d never get away with that at a public school.” She shushes me. I watch the episode unfold, stricken with horror as the campy filth I’ve come to love is glazed over with the fresh faces of the cast and a set of truly monstrous kidz-bop lyrics just right for basic cable. By the end, I’m slack-jawed. Alex pats me on the shoulder. She’s not that mad.
Mind you, I kept watching the show for at least another year. Ryan Murphy has that power.
In some ways, Scream Queens is a similar experience. The new show, about a shady sorority apparently haunted by a serial killer, has a lot of the old Glee-style glibness. Despite its far reach for Representation, the show is scattered with the usual casual sexism and racism. Still, it has something that Glee in its last seasons had lost: the freshness and delight of pure outrageousness.
It’s as though the wacky fun of Glee has been breathed into with the slyness of American Horror Story. Yes, I know it’s the obvious comparison to make. But Scream Queens is like a Ryan Murphy synthesis.
Nothing in Scream Queens is new. The tone is borrowed from Glee, the horror tropes all practiced in American Horror Story, and Emma Roberts (brilliantly as always) more or less replicates her character from American Horror Story: Coven. Toss in a bit of the ’90s nostalgia fad and a travesty of academic politics, and there’s your show. But nonetheless, the show is a delight. I’m desperate for next week’s episode.
There’s a lot of complaint out there about the recycling of tropes in television. What with the phenomenon of Netflix building shows based on popular categories, it’s beginning to seem like writing TV shows is becoming more like building with legos than creating a piece of art out of thin air.
That’s fine with me. Certain tropes, certain themes are popular for a good reason. We as a culture are endlessly fascinated with camp, with horror tropes, with the bitchy queen bee and the callous frat bro. Yes, these tropes carry societal prejudices and need to be amended for a new age. But, as my office-mates are surprisingly fond of saying, “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Scream Queens is nothing new. But it takes delight in recycling and recombining old tropes in fresh and interesting ways. And that’s certainly enough to keep me entertained for an hour.