“Abigail, you’re slaying,” Emma Roberts says, complimenting costar Abigail Breslin on her comedic delivery, during a break in shooting on Scream Queens’ New Orleans stages. The two actresses, along with co-stars Skyler Samuels, Keke Palmer, Lea Michele, Billie Lourd, and Niecy Nash, who plays inept security guard Denise Hemphill, are shooting a scene in which Chanel #5 begins to crack under the pressure of being stalked by a killer and flees the house. “This is insane! If we stay in this house we’re all going to die,” shouts Breslin’s #5. Roberts’ Chanel feigns concern: “Number 5, don’t go—actually, I’m totally fine with her leaving.”
Possibly the most ambitiously funny (and certainly most wicked) new show of the fall, it was the brainchild of Glee triumvirate Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. Airing Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m., Queens is a biting satire of millennials, feminism, and the collegiate Greek system mixed with an elaborate, gruesome Agatha Christie-style whodunit. Or to put it in the show’s parlance, it’s as if Glee and American Horror Story (co-created by Murphy and Falchuk) hooked up at a mixer and birthed a really bitchy daughter.
“Scream Queens to me is kind of the dream of American Horror Story, but with the sprinkling of this amazing comedy aspect that Ryan, Ian, and Brad do so well,” says Emma Roberts. The 25-year-old actress plays ruthlessly mean Kappa Kappa Tau president Chanel Oberlin, who finds her sorority, including minions Chanel #3 (Lourd) and Chanel #5 (Breslin), targeted for death by someone dressed as the university’s mascot, the Red Devil. Chanel must also battle with Dean Munsch, who hates everything she stands for, and a group of undesirable new pledges (including Samuels, Michele, and Palmer) whom she’s forced to allow in.
Like all the Chanels who strive to be the prettiest and the best, Queens has lofty goals of its own. It not only aims to pull in viewers with an all-star cast — which includes pop singers Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas in supporting roles — but also is being filmed as an anthology that will take the survivors to a new location next season.
The creators are also eager to push the boundaries of what can be said and done on network television. (For instance, necrophilia plays a fairly major role.) “I sorta feel like if you’re gonna do broadcast TV, you better go far, because people are not interested in it if you don’t,” says Murphy. And creating event television is something Fox is very keen on, after its explosive success with Empire last winter. Queens is also the first series greenlit under Fox Television Group’s new chiefs, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, who shepherded both Glee and AHS, so there are high — and heightened — expectations.
“There’s a lot of pressure on this business right now,” says Walden. “You have to be able to create some urgency so that people are watching your shows in a way that feels like they are a priority.” Adds Murphy: “I’ve had this experience where you do a network show and they ‘No’ you to death, so you take away any of the edge. The great thing is Gary and Dana have encouraged a point of view. It may not be the point of view for everybody, but this is one of the funniest, best projects I have been involved with.”
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It’s also somewhat of a career rebirth for Curtis, who, since starring in Freaky Friday in 2003, has mostly just done guest spots on shows like New Girl and in commercials for the probiotic yogurt Activia. “I don’t want to denigrate that job, because the truth of the matter is I was happy doing it,” Curtis says of shilling yogurt. “We [worked with] great people, it was a public service… But to say it was creatively satisfying would be a lie. So to have a job that is creatively satisfying at this age is fantastic. I certainly didn’t expect it.”
For more on Scream Queens, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.