The creative team of Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy pioneered a previously unexploited genre of television. They’re credited with creating the now well known season by season anthology storytelling form. The simple idea was the answer to the problem of horror television. Shows like Mark Garris’s Masters of Horror (2005-2006) and Fear Itself (2009-present) demonstrated how successful horror anthologies could be, but they still didn’t possess a widespread appeal. Looking at the formula of horror films, producers had a problem basing TV shows off them, but American Horror Story established a solution. It was clear from the success of horror drama television like The Walking Dead that viewers were ready for a new kind of horror. American Horror Story fixed the problems that Masters of Horror had by creating a totally new format.
Unfortunately, the good aspects of the show tend to end there. As of now, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy seem to be some of the most prominent names attached to horror television. The magic of the first season of American Horror Story seems to have been entirely accidental as the creators show their true colors with the increasingly disjointed and plotless seasons that follow. The beautiful cinematography and gifted cast have carried the show to where it is now. After watching American Horror Story: Freak Show and American Horror Story: Hotel every week with the rest of the audience, I still don’t know what happened or what the story was. Every season becomes increasingly unmemorable as the show seems to create several antagonists and protagonists only to abandon them all with no thought. In American Horror Story: Asylum, the monsters were nuns, Satan, aliens, Nazis, and mutants. It is as ridiculous to watch as it is to say. The show’s very serious tone doesn’t help the audience take these plot points with a straight face.
Scream Queens is Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s newest effort to create a postmodern horror comedy television series. The first season takes place on a college campus and follows a sorority around as they are picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. The show is now on its second season but still follows a slasher-esque story with different settings and new characters. It’s largely self congratulatory and because there is no other horror comedy anthology on television, people will watch it regardless of how much it fails at being funny or smart. Scream Queens also suffers from many of the problems that plague American Horror Story. It tries not to take itself too seriously, while also trying to create a puzzle for the audience to solve, only for the finale to show that there was no rhyme or reason to the show the entire time. The clues the show offers are discarded and the show instead puts on an alternate nonsensical ending that audiences are supposed to praise as being clever despite a total lack of thought behind the writing. The entirety of season one is spent figuring out who the killer(s) is/are. As the show drops obscure clues as to who the killer is, it veers left and chooses a character that would have been impossible for the audience to guess based on the information the writers provided. The problems with American Horror Story and Scream Queens not only revolve around their ineffective writing, but their suspiciously racist and sexist undertones.
Lack of thought is the largest issue that plagues Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. American Horror Story: Coven in particular uses the sensitive and complicated issues of race, gender, disability, and identity to create a wildly offensive and confusing mess. Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy wants a congratulation for making Jessica Lange’s evil character in Coven vote for Obama as evidence of her lack of racism. Lange’s character also makes the nonfictional character of Delphine LaLaurie, a racist serial killer, into a slave for a black woman in the school in order to teach her a lesson. The worst part of all of these simplistic and strange plot points is knowing that it was an effort by Murphy to combat racism as a subject. His point of view isn’t radical or even liberal as he does not go very far on issues of racism, and instead creates messages like, ‘murdering black people for fun is bad.’ It is easy to dismiss slavery as evil, but what about deeper problems, or the relations between historical and modern racism? Rather than creating a never before seen portrayal of real world racial issues in New Orleans, the show plays on traditional and incorrect depictions of voodoo, with a surprising lack of insight or care into black subjects.
Scream Queens and American Horror Story have similar goals and sequentially similar failures. Scream Queen’s use of satire tackles many social issues including eating disorders, disability, sexism, hazing, racism, and classism. Maybe the producers’ goals do seem pure, and maybe these goals do matter, but the problem lies with the perceptions the audience has of the show. It’s a controversial question to ask whose responsibility it is to understand the message of an art piece. Many insist that responsibility lies with the audience, but some people believe that artists have a certain responsibility to their audience. If you take this point of view, Murphy and Falchuk need to be more conscious of the social implications of their work, but also need to be producing better content in general.
So how do you create effective satire? Oftentimes it seems the show is trying to get you to laugh at characters who portray sassy black women or find Chanel’s racist jokes funny. When Chanel calls their white, overweight housekeeper “White mammy” because she is “basically a house slave” she is making a joke at the expense of the woman and slavery. Chanel’s character is someone the audience likes, and even though she is the “mean girl,” she becomes a sympathetic character when we learn her backstory and when we see her help the girls survive the killer. What ideas does the audience leave with? Comedy about race has always been popular, but it’s best done when people of color are not made the butt of the joke, and instead, racists are. It’s difficult to see how Scream Queens comedically subverts racial stereotypes and how they make fun of racists in the process.
American Horror Story and Scream Queens portray historical stereotypes of black women to a T and their attempts to deconstruct these images can come across ineffective at best and racist at worst. Many characters end up playing into stereotypes and these images can perpetuate those ideas. Representation has positive and negative effects and maybe the show creators deserve credit for not having an all white cast; having characters that the audience loves who are generally underrepresented demographics in television is a progressive move on the surface. Unfortunately, the writers create one-dimensional characters in an effort to make minorities seem better than their white or able counterparts by pandering to black/disabled/female audiences. For example, Nan, a character who has down syndrome in American Horror Story: Coven is referred to by Jessica Lange’s character as the smartest girl in the house. The issue with this comment comes from the character’s intention. The Supreme, played by Jessica Lange, is a murderous, selfish witch who has a problem with every character. Her sweet attitude towards Nan comes off as charity, but the fact that she treats her so much differently than the other characters works against Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s goals of inclusion.
But as bad as the implications are that the show perpetuates harmful stereotypes, many people may choose to brush off these problems if the TV show is good. However, the show suffers from poor writing, bad plot points, and an overuse of gore and sex to make up for its failures. The producers of American Horror Story and Scream Queens have an obligation to horror fans. Their show contains allusions to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and many other amazing directors. Yet, they still manage to churn out unoriginal, confusing, and pointless scripts. The past decade has seen an increase in remake, found footage, postmodern, and television horror, but somehow there seems to be a lack of new ideas in the horror genre. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes remakes are necessary and can do a commendable job, sometimes a postmodern perspective of film can be fun and produce stellar TV. Unfortunately, none of that seems to be happening in horror television.
The wild popularity that Scream Queens and American Horror Story holds means that creativity will most likely never become important. The shows Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk produce have no substance, but they are very pretty. They rely on flashiness to sell, and it works for the majority of audiences. While the format is unique, the show depends entirely on shocking images, which is an overarching issue with today’s horror genre. People love to criticize society for only focusing on the superficial, but in the case of American Horror Story and Scream Queens, the only thing horror fans have is superficial. Shows like these shape audience tastes, ideas, and inspiration. In order to be better people, we need better than Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.