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Fox's 'Scream Queens' sorority-slasher is a howler in more ways than one

Fox's 'Scream Queens' sorority-slasher is a howler in more ways than one
Abigail Breslin, left, Emma Roberts, Skyler Samuels, Keke Palmer and Jeanna Han in "Scream Queens." (Steve Dietl / Fox)

When asking her to appear in his horror-comedy "Scream Queens," co-creator Ryan Murphy reportedly told Jamie Lee Curtis that he wouldn't make it if she wasn't in it.

Murphy knows what he's doing; not only is Curtis as good a get as there is to be got, she is absolutely the best thing about the new Fox series, which attempts a post-modern riff on the genre her screams begat. The series premieres Tuesday.

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It's a concept right in Murphy's sweet spot. Along with co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, he has been deconstructing pop culture for years: "Nip/Tuck's" savage look at the cult of beauty, "Glee's" caustic, poignant view of high school, "American Horror Story's" paean to our delight in horror. In a way, "Scream Queens" is a combination of all these shows.

Leveraging the wearisome but troubling delight we take in watching pretty rich girls get ripped apart (at times literally), "Scream Queens" flirts with camp but settles for tweet-worthy. With obvious references to "Mean Girls" and "Heathers," there are long jokes about young women ordering lattes and murders too brutal to be funny but too cold-hearted to be chilling. The two-hour premiere depends so much on the presumed fan love for its stars — Ariana Grande! Keke Palmer! Lea Michele! In a neckbrace! — that it neglects to give them anything interesting to do.

To distance itself from the "Scream" franchise (including the new MTV series), "Scream Queens" focuses on the sorority subgenre, in which young college women, usually hiding a dark secret, are brutally murdered one by one, often while wearing short skirts or nighties.

The series dings these tics immediately. The dark secret is revealed in an opening flashback to a rockin' '90s party at Kappa Kappa Tau, along with all the necessary character types, mainly a pretty blond Queen Bee and her posse — one or two of whom might want to do the right thing but are cowed into complicity.

Twenty years later, KKT is a sorority on steroids run by Chanel (Emma Roberts), a pretty blond so privileged and mean she has a trio of equally stylish minions whom she addresses by derivations of her own name: Chanel No. Two, Three and Five.

Full coverage: Fall TV guide 2015

These young women are played by Grande, Billie Lourd (whose mother, Carrie Fisher, starred in the 2009 remake of "Sorority Row') and Abigail Breslin, not that it matters much. "Scream Queens" is obviously a vehicle for "American Horror"-star Roberts, which means Chanel never stops talking. Working in the rat-a-tat-tat cadence of 1940s female film stars and the drag queens who love them, she delivers all manner of occasionally funny but mostly hateful and strangely middle-aged monologues.

An overweight maid is the butt of endless abuse, including a weird little scene in which Chanel calls her "white mammy" and forces her to repeat the "I don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies" line from "Gone With the Wind." Never mind that it was Prissy who said that, not Mammy, or that it's difficult to imagine any young adult referencing it.

Lines from "Mean Girls," yes; "Gone With the Wind"? No.

The story tears itself away from its horrified admiration of diva culture just long enough to set up a little conflict. A new girl is on campus, and she's so nice her name is Grace (Skyler Samuels). As her dead mother was a KKT, Grace not only wants to pledge, she also persuades her new dormmate, ZayDay (Palmer), to join her.

The new Dean (Curtis), meanwhile, has Chanel's number, hates sororities and, in an effort to close KKT down, opens its doors to all comers.

They include a variety of "Glee-like" losers, including a young women described, via Chanel, as a predatory lesbian, a "neckbrace girl" (Michelle) and a "deaf Taylor Swift."

Soon enough people begin to die with as much blood and gore as broadcast television will allow. As the second hour nears its end, Chanel talks less and things pick up a bit when Grace and a male reporter-love interest begin unearthing the sins of the past.

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Two things bear repeating: Curtis is glorious, and one hopes the show will quickly rise to meet her. More important, Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan know what they're doing.

For all its new "diversity" (which this team certainly helped create), television continues to love-hate pretty young women and never more than when terrible things happen to them. "Scream Queens" might be making a statement about this, but in the pilot it seems content to just wallow in agreement.

Not that it matters. Aimed squarely at a generation raised on the "Scary Movies," "Pretty Little Liars" and previous works by its creators, "Scream Queens" has a built-in audience that will no doubt assure it will open as big as any new show this fall.

And as anyone who has seen a sorority slasher film knows, the critic who tries to spoil the fun is always the first to go.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Scream Queens'

Where: Fox

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under age 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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