05 October 2016

Welcome to Ryan and Brad's World - Crime, Horror, and Scream Queens

It's been a nice break this month after the flurry of the Summer, but it's about time we get back at this pop culture stuff. Sure there have been some significant releases this past month, from Sully (2016) to Blair Witch (2016) and The Magnificent Seven (2016), but the latter two didn't really do anything their predecessors didn't, and I really have never cared about that Hudson landing, as impressive as it is. There's something way more trashy and interesting to dish on, though, and even though I've been decently immersed for a few years now, I've never quite broached the topic, which is a true shame. That's the television takeover by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. I will admit my full expertise is in the supreme guilty pleasure that is Scream Queens, so I'ma focus mostly on that, but there is a breadth of quality across genres here that is astounding. Let's dish on this for a while.

Both Murphy and Falchuk have been at this game for a while with their fair share of hits and misses, but their first really catchy series was Nip/Tuck, which Murphy created and Falchuk wrote for, later producing and directing. Do you remember Nip/Tuck? Back in those early FX original days of The Shield and Rescue Me - what an era. Looking back on Nip/Tuck you can actually see quite a bit of the modern Murphy/Falchuk paradigm of applying genuine drama to awful trashy characters. I'd be surprised to not see many Nip/Tuck references in the current season of Scream Queens, considering they share a hospital setting, although the lack of any of the Nip/Tuck cast appearing across their many other series, which really seems to be their thing, would indicate that they've somewhat moved on from this first series.

After Nip/Tuck the duo sank their teeth into Glee, which became a huge cultural phenomenon for like, a season. It somehow cranked out six seasons of declining quality before it exited without a whole lot of people caring. Looking back on Glee it almost seems like a weird part of the duo's oeuvre, which is weird because when American Horror Story was announced, that seemed like the stretch of their genre expertise.

Glee was a big indicator of their later interests, though. It's full of really contemporary stuff that appeals to crazy teens. It's super-inclusive, simultaneously nerdy and sexy, and there hasn't quite been television like it before or since. That's perhaps the most coherent thread running through all of their works - they never settle for tired genres or old staples. There's always something new and outrageous pushing everything they do. Yeah, this may have caused Glee to spin its wheels a fuckload in later seasons, and it probably leads American Horror Story into a damned desperate corner each and every year, but for a split second, the freshness is phenomenal.

Speaking of AHS, the contained yet somewhat interconnected mini-series (since by and large, the whole show seems to take place in the same world), has found a decided niche on FX, even if its narrative excellence probably peaked in Season 1, and its zaniness peaked in Season 2. Again, though, I give them credit for reinvention. The current spectacle, My Roanoke Nightmare tends to defy all sorts of convention, blending what's real and what's dramatized, while on the way not totally feeling like any other AHS at all. There's this big buck against staleness, which is daring.

Of course, that doesn't totally mean that it's any good. Coven built and built to a pretty big letdown. Freak Show seemed more into shock than substance and Hotel was a parade of black-haired beautiful men until it burned itself down. The important thing we need to go back to, though, is how much this duo revels in trash. It's a complete glorification of pulpy weirdness, and I sure as hell appreciate the mainstreaming of this sort of insanity. Is AHS mainstream yet? Maybe not. It sure is disturbing as hell. The current season has actually had far more restraint, which has naturally made the horror even more visceral.

Let's jump to American Crime Story for a second, because I really want to dish on Scream Queens last. Otherwise known, at least in its current incarnation, as The People vs. O.J. Simpson this wasn't created by Murph and Falch (that honor goes to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), but the trashy duo are front and center as producers, and the casting from Sarah Paulson to Connie Britton is pretty AHS. Of course, even more telling is the absolute stunt casting, which the duo excel at.

David Schwimmer, John Travolta, and Cuba Gooding, Jr are all pretty good gets that experienced excessive 90s popularity and not at all that much these days. AHS casting is an insane assault that gets wackier every year, especially since great actresses like Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett have become sincere regulars at this point. The crown of this is probably Lady GaGa, but randos like Michael Chiklis, Wes Bentley, and Gabourey Sidibe is all kind of goofy. Again, we'll wait until Scream Queens to really dig into this debacle.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson took the country by storm almost as much as the actual case did. There was this weird OJ nostalgia this year, which is terribly misplaced, since I'm not sure anyone actually wanted to remember how fucking insane everything surrounding that case was. Still, even though it's not a true Murphy/Falchuk joint, it's got a lot of their staples. Actors chew scenery like it's the last scrap of meat at the campfire. Characters are outrageous and larger than life. In some cases this is really just reflecting reality, because that case was nuts. It's also really unafraid to create all these insane characters and watch them bounce off each other. It's as if the characters are exaggerated, but the ensuing drama created by that exaggeration is treated more authentically than the pulp it is. It's all a delightful mix that creates damn entertaining television.
Billie Lord should probably be in a Star Wars at some point.
Niecy Nash too.

So, let's Scream Queens, which is the absolute pinnacle of Murphy/Falchuk television. It's the ultimate guilty pleasure. I've never watched another television series that so loved its own trashiness, its own despicable cartoon characters, and the sheer chaos created by them smashing into each other. I love that Emma Roberts played a character identical to hers in Coven. The stunt casting is endless and fucking sublime. Ultimately, no one here is a normal actor or normal character. In Season 1 we had Skylar Samuels as our anchor, but around her everything went haywire. There were former teen idols (sort of....?) Keke Palmer, Abigail Breslin, and Ariana Grande. Former scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis who would have lended respectability and gravitas if not for her swinging for the fences with every take. Nick Jonas and Lea Michele, the latter playing the exact opposite of her Glee role round out the cast, but the real star performance here is Glen Powell, whose utterly hopeless rendition of Chad Radwell is amazing. There's no one that better sums up Scream Queens' unique blend of trash, satire, insight, indulgence, and cartoon-ism. It's a brilliant, underrated turn that makes you laugh and queasy at the same time.

This season so far has done a fair job at topping any ridiculous Season 1 could have provided. John Stamos is equally brilliant as Dr. Brock Holt as his now-nemesis Chad Radwell is. He's broad, dark, and weird and nothing quite like anything he's done before. Taylor Lautner almost seems to be riffing on his public persona as someone who can't act as a character that doesn't really express any emotion at all. Jerry O'Connell shows up doing his best Jerry O'Connell impression. Finally, Kirstie Alley, in her first notable role in uh...let's call it a fucking while, shows up as the ostensible villain, although with this sort of murder mystery it's never the obvious choice. Unless the red herring actually did it this time around, because I wouldn't put that past this insane series, either.

Season 2 lacks a direct protagonist, but if it's anyone, it's Keke Palmer's Zayday Williams, who is competent to the point of parody, but generally the only grounded, sane character in this cast. It's the kind of show you watch continually in disbelief that it's a show that could be on TV, much less on network TV. There's no better exercise in sheer ridiculousness and dramatic trash. It also strikes an incredible tone between comedy and horror that is unparalleled, creating its own genre in the process.

After a break this week, Scream Queens returns next Tuesday on FOX, while American Horror Story: Roanoke just finished about ten minutes ago and will return next week. They're a double-whammy of crazy trash TV that's totally worth getting sucked into.

Are you on board?

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