Ryan Murphy's latest will make you laugh and maybe squeak with surprise from time to time

By Tom Gliatto
Updated September 22, 2015 08:00 PM
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Scream Queens, Ryan Murphy‘s new festival of blood, fun and cruelty, doesn’t pitch its tent too far from his American Horror Story on FX, except that he’s smart enough to have eliminated the churning psychosexual undercurrents that can make AHS so strangely unsettling. Queens will make you laugh and maybe squeak with surprise from time to time, whereas AHS is a good argument for providing trigger alerts for TV shows.

Scream Queens is like AHS taking a Mentos break.

The show is set on a college campus, which keeps it close to contemporary teen-slasher movies (and parodies of teen-slasher movies). If your memory goes back far enough and low enough, you may find yourself even thinking of the 1973 TV movie Satan’s School for Girls – or, more recently, the 2000 remake with Shannen Doherty.

And Heathers.

Here we have the Chanels. The central character (Emma Roberts) is a sorority princess of that name, except of course she morally stinks to the high heavens. The same goes for the sisters who slavishly do her bidding (one of them is an unrecognizable Abigail Breslin, who strikes just the right note of smudged kittenish prettiness). Kappa is a snobby, prestigious house where only the meanest of mean girls will survive. And even that’s debatable.

What was that that nasty, hushed-up business a few decades ago involving a girl who delivered a baby in a Kappa bathtub and died? And why has someone dressed in a red devil costume taken such a lethal disliking to Kappa girls?

Worse – and yes, this is worse than being killed by an unknown Satan whose weapons include a ride-a-mower – Kappa is being required to open its admissions process to anyone on campus. Chanel has to put up with the likes of newbie Hester, whose neck brace pushes up so tightly against her jaw it seems her head might pop off like a champagne cork. (She’s played by Glee’s Lea Michele, so I would bet the brace is removed at some point.) There’s also some loser whose hobby is blogging about candles.

The two-hour premiere does a good job of putting these circles of hell in working concentric order, and the actors all arrange their performances – stamped with varying degrees of camp, dunder-headedness and hysteria – around one central, unstated but obvious principle: People are sadists. If not, they’re dead. Take your pick.

If this is a sadistic show, it’s also a juvenile one. That’s the kick. It’s the difference between AHS leading lady Jessica Lange and Jamie Lee Curtis, who here plays Dean Cathy Munsch. Curtis, as Munsch, is brisk, to-the-point, not trustworthy but not really sinister, either – the actress is having a good time. Unlike Lange, who always tended to let herself get so overwrought that, by the end of a season, she was practically gasping for air.

Enjoy.

Scream Queens premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.