American-Horror-Story-HotelTwo weeks ago I wrote about some small screen horror that is presently available on-demand depending on what services you’re subscribed to. Then I got excited by a box of toys so this entry got postponed a week. Even though it’s November 3rd I feel like we’re all still a little in the Halloween spirit and both of the shows we’ll be looking at today are currently happening, so they’re still relevant.

Obviously, the danger of looking at a show that is only a few episodes into its run is that the series can still make or break itself with a strong or weak finish. But I’m willing to take that risk. We’re going to look at American Horror Story: Hotel (the 5th Season) and Scream Queens (the 1st Season). AHS is 4 episodes in at the moment of a 13 episode season and Scream Queens is 6 episodes into what will be a 15 episode run.

It’s a bit of coincidence that both of these shows share creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, but I guess that when you spend so much of your time working on Glee your creative energy starts to go to dark places.

For the record I’ve pretty much avoided any spoilers (other than general discussion of the setting and a single sample of dialogue) for either of these two shows. Let’s go.

American Horror Story: Hotel

So when AHS started up with their initial “Murder House” run, Jon, Sarah and I jumped on board, being big horror fans and excited to see long-form horror and how they were going to pull it off. That first season (like pretty much all seasons of AHS) had its ups and downs. It started very strong, got a little weighed down by adding a new ghost every week towards the middle, then ended strong. It was enough to get us into the concept though, and despite more ups and downs over the course of the next 3 seasons, we have still dutifully watched every subsequent season.

I don’t think there’s been a single “great” season of American Horror Story, but they’ve all been pretty good in their own way. Season 2 (Asylum) was heavy on creepy scariness, but got bogged down by having two timelines, a bunch of killers and just WAY too much going on. Any show where there’s a murdering Santa Claus, the embodiment of Death, actual demons and actual aliens, all of which weren’t even the main focus of the plot, needs to re-focus its priorities. Season 3 (Coven) had some of the best character development, but was pretty light on actually being scary. When the “good guys” also have super powers (being witches) it kind of levels the playing field when they face psycho killers. Season 4 (Freakshow) offered a good balance of character development and creepiness but the whole thing also acted as a tribute/sendoff to (the admittedly great) Jessica Lange, who was a focal point of all four seasons. It also featured characters actually singing covers of popular music that didn’t exist yet in the setting, which was weird as hell.

So now Lange is gone, and it seems that Lady Gaga has stepped into the role that might have gone to Lange if she was not stepping away/retiring.

How is Hotel doing? Obviously at only 1/3 of the way through, we’re still in the early stages, but it has a very strong start. There’s a lot going on again, and I was worried that by focusing so much on a central location we’d up in the shit storm of the Asylum, but by interconnecting all of the elements on a character level I think they’ve set up something pretty cohesive. The various deadly characters of the hotel are all tied together through their character development and past, and not just by the fact that they all happen to reside in the same scary-ass hotel.

In terms of creepy freak outs and scares, Hotel has also cranked it up a notch (even for AHS) and featured at least one scene featuring Evan Peters that had the lot of us (seasoned/jaded horror watchers) going “whoa!” in mild disgust. Which, for a horror offering, is pretty much exactly what you want. Why else are you watching horror if not to get freaked out a little? I’m a little amazed they can actually show some of the scenes of violence and sex on cable. I guess we all have Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to thank for that.

I don’t think any season of American Horror Story has started as strong as Hotel yet, and while they still have plenty of time to steer it off the tracks I think they’ve learned from their mistakes in Asylum and they’re on the right path to knock out a pretty great season.

Oh, and thankfully, while the show teeters into music-video territory every now and then, we’ve been saved from the incredible out of place and grating song and dance numbers that were completely off-putting (to me) from Freakshow.

So, if you’re on the fence about jumping into the latest season but have been a fan in the past, for now (at the 4 episode mark) my personal recommendation would be to do whatever it is you do to catch up on shows and get into it.

scream-queensScream Queens

I was a pretty big fan of one of Ryan Murphy’s early forays shows: Popular. I’ve always had a soft spot for ridiculous teen comedies (IE: Heathers, Empire Records, etc) and Popular just took all of those tropes and cranked them up to 11. Nobody speaks or acts like characters in these teen movies and the world of popular was one where at least a few characters were self-aware enough to be very confused when other character’s did. The popular characters are absurdly rich, sex crazed and have a sociopathic disdain for everyone they meet, and other characters are just completely one dimensional cardboard cutouts of teenage archetypes.

Add a serial killer to that mix and you’ve got Scream Queens.

Scream Queens is very much a dark comedy, where a serial killer stalks a university campus (one governed by a Dean played by scream queen legend Jamie Lee Curtis no less) and kills off at least one character per episode. Most of the action revolves around an extremely elite sorority house called Kappa Kappa Tau that the killer is particularly interested in targeting, possibly due to the sorority’s link to a death back in 1995. Of course, everyone is too wrapped up in exaggerated teenage melodrama that the actual killings seem to take a backseat to the ongoing distractions of parties, sex and social power struggles.

In the same way that the character’s in the Heathers don’t really seem to notice or care that people are being killed (or committing suicide for attention), the world of Scream Queens really doesn’t care too much about the fact that a serial killer is on the loose (wracking up a much larger body count than Ghostface manages in Scream: The TV Series I might add).

The casting is fantastic, with minor parts going to Ariana Grande and one of the Jonas Brothers. All grown up Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine herself) and Billie Catherine Lourd (who is Carrie Fisher’s daughter) play minions to Emma Roberts (an up and coming scream queen in her own right after roles in Scream 4 and a few seasons of American Horror Story). Glen Powell plays the leader of a golf-based fraternity and steals nearly every scene he’s in. In fact, the entire tone of the show can be summed up pretty amazingly by one of his character’s lines [DIALOGUE SPOILER AHEAD]:

“I have two important things to tell you, I’ve had sex with like 50 girls since yesterday, and my best friend is dead.”

[END SPOILERS] It kind of hurts me on the inside that Scream couldn’t get close to the kind of self awareness that Scream Queens oozes every episode. Sure, Scream Queens is playing for laughs, but it still has that sharp awareness of the tropes and standards of the genre down to a hilarious art that Scream should’ve been cultivating.

I think it’s important to note that when I say Scream Queens is a comedy, playing for laughs, I’m talking about its absurdest take on the teen killer genre. There aren’t any explicit “jokes” or gags, but the whole delivery is filled with bizarre dark humour.

This is honestly one of the best new shows of 2015 in my opinion, and it’s just a happy bonus that it is also in the horror genre.

That’s it for me. See you next week.

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

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