Ryan Murphy is an idea man, and admittedly a great one at that. He has been given so many amazing opportunities to create original television, and he delivers every time with something new and fresh and unlike what the landscape of programming has to offer. But even the best ideas can quickly turn sour when Hollywood gets involved and the desire to “sell” a story greatly overpowers the desire to actually tell a story. Sometimes it is because there are too may cooks in the kitchen– too many notes to see to– while others it is because there are too many “yes men” just telling you your idea is so brilliant you don’t need to tone it down or simplify it or focus it. And in the case of Murphy’s newest endeavor, American Horror Story for FX, the latter appears to be true, and what we are left with is an ADHD-riddled shock fest that starts out with promise but quickly runs off in a million different directions with no indication of ever finishing a coherent thought, let alone character arc. With shocking images at every turn in American Horror Story, there isn’t much time to focus on the fact that the story underneath is quite thin. For our sake (and Connie Britton‘s), we can’t help but hope the gimmicky visuals get dialed back because we know the show can’t possibly keep up the frenetic momentum of the pilot episode.
American Horror Story should center on a family who moves into an old Los Angeles house with quite a history of death but it veers off and spends much more time devoted to introducing all of the terrors that seem to hold a much deeper ownership over the edifice. At first it appears there is a spirit trapped inside the house, killing all those who trespass against, but soon we learn there is something much more sinister at work, preying on the individuals’ fears and getting inside the men’s heads to make them turn on their loved ones. Just like the psychological horror films of the seventies that influenced Murphy when creating this new project, the subtext seems to be that it is the men who are most susceptible to pressure– whether those pressures be professional, personal, or other worldly. But in truth it is the women who appear more complex from the jump– only to be led down a path of visual stimulation and objectification instead of anything emotionally complicated.
The Harmons are your typical family going through a rough patch. The wife Vivian (Britton) has just experienced a miscarriage; the husband Ben (Dylan McDermott, drawing on a Californication Duchovny-esque level of douche) has just strayed outside the marriage; the daughter (Taissa Farmiga) has some dark secrets of her own that first exhibit themselves as fighting at school and being drawn into a teen sociopath (the deceptively tuned-in Evan Peters). But in this house they become touched by something far more evil. Ben begins to experience trance-like states that have him wandering the house, turning on the stove, lighting up the fireplace, standing over flames, while Vivian fends off too-familiar neighbors (including larger than life Jessica Lange) who know more about the house than they’re letting on. (Our current theory is that Lange’s character has made a deal with the house and is basically sacrificing its occupants’ souls in exchange for eternal youth, but we digress.) When they hire Moira, the housekeeper– a woman who has been with the property for years– Vivian sees her as a kind but old woman (Frances Conroy), while Ben visualizes her as a seductress– a woman with no value except for long legs and a pouty mouth (Alexandra Breckenridge). When Ben is with Moira, the audience sees her as he does, further solidifying we are seeing this story through his gaze. And it’s a shame because it means we should expect a lot of attempts at titillating him, which will do nothing for the viewers. Unless you’re into women with dead eyes and no emotion on their faces. But if you are, you may have bigger problems than even this show.
The pilot episode starts strong enough, introducing the audience to the house, its history, and then the family and their own history, before melding the two together. But it is when the show joins the forces that it begins to go off the rails, suddenly trading subtle nuanced character moments for shocking flashes of creatures around every corner and shrieking sounds of terror. What is truly scary about American Horror Story is attempting to find a salvageable moment in which to be invested out of a bloody (and sometimes literally so) mess.
Murphy tries to keep the viewers interested and (we imagine) unnerved by having new characters and new twists pop up every few minutes. We can’t imagine why he doesn’t know by now that character is king on television, and all we really want to see is some development with the ones already introduced. Vivian starts off so strong, showing shades of Tami Taylor as she hears creaky noises in her old house and heads up to investigate, armed with a knife, ready to take down any intruder, even if it turns out to just be her husband screwing around. Yet by the end of the pilot, she is all but tossed aside completely, having served her purpose as a female in a family story by giving her husband what he wanted all along. Instead the focus is drawn to demonic images in the darkness, a claw-like hand, and a “Rubberman”– what we can only assume at this point is a spirit inhabiting an S&M costume to create a Rosemary’s Baby scenario. This is just the beginning of the oddball group who will crawl out of the woodwork as time goes on, some (like Denis O’Hare) are there to warn the family, while others (like Lange) may be there to do them more harm than it appears at first glance.
Murphy might have something with the unique characters, but they get buried under a gimmick, and on a gimmick alone does not a classic show make. Glee may be surviving– hell, even thriving– on its own gimmick of singing and dancing kids, but there are no pretenses that it is a strongly written character piece. You can watch glee simply for the musical numbers, but no one is going to watch American Horror Story just with the hope of being scared. There is no sense of balance here; any actual pretense of story gets tossed out the window pretty early on in favor of scare tactics. And there are such a combination of scare tactics, it appears Murphy can’t even settle on what he wants that one element of the show to be. Is the house haunted by the ghosts of the dead? Does something still live within the walls, lurking in the basement? Is the Rubberman real? Is Lange controlling it all? It took glee a few episodes to become so bipolar but with American Horror Story, it only took the pilot episode. Can it find its way back to the intense family drama Murphy promised the show to be? With all of the questions and no real proof there will be answers, we don’t have high hopes. The highest point of the show is when Britton and Lange verbally spar, but that appears to be a one-scene per episode wonder, and it may not prove to be enough to keep us sticking around.
American Horror Story premieres on FX on October 5th at 10pm.
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