The first 10 minutes of Scream Queens are great. They're Ryan Murphy in his purest form, perfectly representative of the manic, barbed, high camp he brought to the best episodes of American Horror Story and even Glee. Unfortunately, those first 10 minutes didn't last.
On the new horror-comedy series, which premiered last night on Fox, a sorority with a sordid past becomes the target of a serial killer disguised as the university's creepy Red Devil mascot. Meanwhile, the dean (elder stateswoman of horror Jamie Lee Curtis), is determined to shut them down any way she can.
Emma Roberts is sublimely bitchy as Chanel Oberlin, the president of Kappa Kappa Tau, who rules her ladies-in-waiting—Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel #3 (Billie Lourd), and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin)—with an iron fist clutching an expensive purse. Chanel #1 shares a lot of DNA with Madison Montgomery, the vicious Hollywood party girl Roberts played on American Horror Story: Coven. But importantly, Madison wasn't the main character on Coven—she was one member of a strong, evenly-matched ensemble. That's not the case on Scream Queens.
Unchecked, Chanel's exquisite mean streak quickly goes from intoxicatingly funny to disorientingly cruel. Shortly after she's introduced, she calls the sorority housekeeper "white mammy" because she's a "house slave." When she and her sisters express their disgust with the "fatties and ethnics" allowed to pledge their sorority this year, it doesn't feel like satire: It feels like punching down.
Murphy's no stranger to stereotypical characters and jokes at the expense of marginalized groups, although he usually manages to straddle the line between cheeky self-awareness and genuine insensitivity. (Maybe "usually" is a strong word.) But on Scream Queens, the balance feels decidedly off. In the premiere, Chanel dismisses her sole African-American pledge, Zayday Williams (Keke Palmer), as a "hood rat," which isn't much better than the dialogue Palmer herself is given to work with: "All y'all ratchet," she shouts at one point. The hearing-impaired pledge the Kappas dub Deaf Taylor Swift (Whitney Meyer) is almost too busy singing “Shake It Off” to notice she’s about to be decapitated by a lawn mower.
What is a Regina George without her Cady Heron? Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), a freshman pledge with an idealistic vision for the sisterhood that Kappa could be, is seemingly intended as Chanel's foil, but the character totally falls flat. Grace tells a barista that her name is "Señorita Awesome" (do you want to try fitting that on the side of a cup, lady?), an affectation so annoying that, serial killer or not, she may very well be the real monster on Scream Queens. I know this is very Chanel of me, but I want badly to reach through the television and throw all of Grace's terrible hats in the garbage, then set them on fire.
There are more than a few moments of genius in Scream Queens: a death scene in which all the communication between killer and victim takes place via text message, an Olive Garden heiress who refers to her sorority as "this thing of ours," and a candle vlogger. Standouts in the cast include Glen Powell as Chanel's meathead boyfriend—who believes he's sexually attractive even to "plants, probably"; Nick Jonas as his closeted frat brother; Nasim Pedrad as a bubbly, brainless Kappa alum; and Lourd (Carrie Fisher's daughter, in her first major role) as an irresistibly vapid sorority underling.
But Jamie Lee Curtis, who presumably signed on thinking Murphy would help her ascend to the grand dame status afforded Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates on American Horror Story, speaks mostly in exposition. She deserves better than this dialogue, but she's nevertheless making an effort.
Worst of all, to paraphrase Paulina Porizkova on RuPaul's Drag Race, Scream Queens committed the number one crime in show business: It bored me. I'm not sure there's any amount of gruesome murders that can keep a two-hour double episode entertaining.
Chanel's one-size-fits-all disdain for everyone she encounters made me think of a scene that inevitably finds a place in every superhero movie: After the protagonist gets her powers, but before she has any ability to control them. If Scream Queens can find a way to intelligently, meaningfully target its vitriol, the series could recapture the addictive quality of its opening, and maybe even make a meaningful statement about modern-day college life.
On the bright side, at least it's way more interesting than MTV's Scream.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.