For a show conceived to gin up publicity for next year’s compulsory Saw film, Scream Queens surprisingly doesn’t deserve crib death. Multiple seasons could be devoted to stimulating the reality G-spot located here, the nexus between horror filmmakers and the perennial throngs of young women who turn up on their doorstep with visions of a path of least resistance to stardom. The debut season shuffles 10 of these fresh faces (minus one each week) through a mini-Hollywood obstacle course of acting challenges, light stunt work and horror industry-related hazards, the output of which is quilted together with reality standards like the ballroom judgment chamber, whispers-will-be-subtitled barracks, and confessional booth to create a smartly-crafted, frequently awesome hour. In the end, this season’s survivor girl is promised screen immortalization with a role in Saw VI that’s presently undefined, but assured to be “major” and “breakout.”
What makes the whole thing gel successfully is a canny creative team that includes Slither director James Gunn (a judge, also around for punch-up work) and a thread of serious intent that convinces us of each week’s deliberations being well-reasoned, attuned to improvement, and above shock elimination. The affable Gunn, acting coach to starlets John Homa and South Carolina-twanged Saw star Shawnee Smith appear throughout each episode, first separately as coaches in their own segments (Homa instructs the girls in house-bound acting class, Shawnee tests their mettle in outdoor exercises, Gunn films them in prototypical horror scenes) before congealing into a solid judging triumvirate. Delightfully bullshit-free Shawnee offers “bo-ring” and “beatings are good for you” to sob sisters on the block, while Homa is often the disappointed uncle, hanging his blow-dried head when a favorite underperforms; Gunn is the most impassioned, expounding on his every decision through a personal show blog.
The reality gods have gifted season one with dual lightning strikes: Michelle and Lindsay, two dissimilar and exciting frontrunners with real-world potential. The former is an evil prom queen straight out of Carrie who cruised through early eliminations by using the confessional as a forum for mean-spirited quips (“Nothing about Sarah screams queen”) and counting on the producers’ invisible hand to ferry her gold-mine ass past rough water; the latter is a former Nickelodeon star-turned-Claire Danes look-a-like with natural abilities but also crippling anxieties that contrast starkly with Michelle’s enormous reserve tank of self-love from which revealing non sequiturs like “I’ve always wanted a twin” tend to bubble up. Last week’s subtle, long-delayed confrontation between heroine and villainess came after they’ve seen off nearly all competition: Goners include Jessica, the weirdo tossed for extraterrestrial acting choices; Angela, the blubbery one whose journey ended after a meltdown during Homa’s class; Sarah, a Jersey girl with a smoker’s voice who’s told by the judges that she wasn’t very hot; Lina, the conservative axed for lying to Gunn about her willingness to kiss a girl in a testing-your-limits scene.
A minor complaint would be the early-season over-indulgence in cat fighting, though one such fight ended memorably when, while riding home after a night out drinking, the girls’ party bus was pulled over and stormed by an unconvincingly excited Shawnee and a Jigsaw-masked companion, on hand to dramatically unveil the next challenge. “He follows me everywhere. I don’t know what to do about it!” she nasaled to the sloshed ladies. (Questions: Did Shawnee and Jigsaw actually tail the bus in a car? What did they talk about on the drive?) Also disappointing was the occasional encroachment of uninspired reality boilerplate masquerading as acting challenges (perform as we shower you with roaches, jump out of this high window to escape the killer) though more often than not the challenges exhibited a creative spark, such as when the girls ran lines after being removed from a morgue drawer or took their housemates on as characters or performed a vampire scene opposite guest Michael Rooker.
As the season winds down, three remain: Michelle, Lindsay, and Tanedra, a middle player whose obvious talent ceiling went unnoticed and uncriticized by the judges for six episodes before leaping into their crosshairs last week, a situation that has caused much off-screen tension, Gunn’s blog reports, potentially setting the stage for a finale-tainting clusterfuck of unfairness accusations. As for Lindsay, she rides in on an upswing, unexpectedly killing the ball and winning every prize in episode seven after her doom was misleadingly spelled with a losing-my-confidence montage set to Civil Twilight sadness-pop. Michelle likely remains a bookie’s favorite, but barely. One episode to go. The executives from Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures are about to arrive, ready to wrap the last girl standing in the pox blanket known as the Saw franchise. Who will win? And what will be left of them?