TV: Scream Queens
By rights, Scream Queens should have been crap. It is, after all, part of VH1’s reality lineup, in which hustlers and fame whores acquire wisdom and disease via hot tub. The premise: ten aspiring starlets share a house (again with the communal living, reality TV?) while competing for a role in the upcoming Saw VI. But Scream Queens, in spite of itself, became DVR-worthy. I learned more about acting in its brief run than I have from years of Inside the Actors’ Studio.
Each episode is as rigorously structured as a Feydeau farce. In Act I, Saw actress Shawnee Smith leads the ladies through an acting exercise informed by the realities of low-budget horror. Sometimes you have to create a character while drenched in fake blood. Or make ridiculous dialogue believable, hence a recreation of a scene from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in which you play a disembodied head. Low budget means varying acting ability, so your scene partner will be a gorgeous male model incapable of human emotion.
Next up, workshop. John Homa, possessed of the righteous prick demeanor and facility for gnomic utterance essential for any acting coach, puts the girls through their paces. At times his tactics seem dubious. More often than not they’re unhinged: locking a bunch of twenty-somethings in the drawer at an abandoned morgue? But there’s Method to his madness. The morgue bit, for example, prepares each actress to play a character facing death. (OK, it’s still ridiculous. But it’s great TV.)
At this point there’s some filler about “tension in the house,” but the show’s heart isn’t in it; you can sense the producers thinking, “Hey, this acting stuff is actually interesting.” The ladies bring all they’ve learned to bear on the director’s challenge in which they work with James Gunn, the Troma vet who made the delirious Slither. The outcomes can be genuinely surprising. In one episode an early favorite, a striking actress with real chops who occasionally made baffling choices, waited until cameras were about to roll before telling Gunn that she was uncomfortable with kissing another woman. She was cut at the end of the episode for unprofessional behavior. That this was presented as an ethical dilemma – and that we got the girl-on-girl action anyway with a different actress – demonstrates the program’s particular genius.
There’s also a nice mix of personalities among the contestants. Like Lindsay, a former child actress working through confidence issues. (Politically incorrect aside to Lindsay: in addition to being skilled, you also have the best rack on the show. Do not be afraid to use it. This is Saw VI we’re talking about here, not Mother Courage.) And Tanedra, the oldest and least trained of the ten, who has undeniable raw talent. Both of my favorites made it to the Final Girl stage. Can I spot ‘em or what? I am Flo Ziegfeld reborn.
It’s been said that it takes as much work to make a bad movie as a good one. Scream Queens drives that point home. Episodes are still airing, or you can watch them at VH1’s website.
Miscellaneous: Radio, Radio
The peerless Bill Nighy stars as Simon Brett’s dissolute actor-cum-sleuth Charles Paris in Dead Side of the Mic for BBC Radio. The four-part series airs on Wednesdays, and you can hear each installment online for the next week. Hat tip to Ed Gorman.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
TV: Scream Queens