American Horror Story has become one the most buzzed about new shows of the fall season, and with good reason. After weeks of cryptic ads hinting at the ‘psycho-sexual’ nature of the series – in which a rubber-clad individual dangles above a very pregnant woman – viewers are ready to find out just what there is to fear from this new horror series conjured by Nip/Tuck and Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
First and foremost, Murphy and Falchuk want to make it clear that for all the hubbub and puzzlingly sexual marketing, American Horror Story is their twisted take on the classic haunted house story – a very precisely and calculated one. Meaning, answers are coming - just not right away.
The first piece of the puzzle comes in the form of the show’s opening credits, which evoke a certain Se7en-like experience wherein unpleasant and disturbing images serve as a sort of preamble to the series. Murphy himself described the opening sequence as a mystery unto itself – and that all the images are directly tied to questions that will be answered by the time the ninth episode has aired.
Like any good haunted house story, the house in question is the first ‘character’ to which the audience is introduced – however the year is 1978, and the house’s menace is conveyed through a young girl named Adelaide, who warns two bat wielding ginger twins of their impending doom, before they run afoul of something dangerous lurking in the house’s basement.
After that initial scare, American Horror Story jumps to present day, introducing the Harmons, Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien (Connie Britton), who are at a bit of a low point – Vivien having delivered a stillborn child some months prior, comes home to find Ben dealing with his grief by sleeping with a 21-year old student in the couple’s bed.
By some miracle (or great misfortune) the couple avoids divorce court, heading instead away from their home in Boston to start anew in Los Angeles, with their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) in tow.
After shrugging off the realtor’s disclosure that their new home’s previous occupants vacated the premises by way of murder-suicide, Ben, Vivien and Violet move in - and things get kooky pretty fast.
For starters, the house seems to have plenty of history living outside its walls – namely in the form of the Harmon’s new next door neighbor, Constance – played delightfully by the episode’s major standout Jessica Lange. Constance and her daughter, the now grown Adelaide, walk right in, making themselves at home as though guests of the house itself.
Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) shows up as Moira the housekeeper; she, too, manifests as if beckoned by the house. Unfortunately for the infidelity-prone Ben, Moira appears to him as the comely Alexandra Breckenridge (True Blood) – complete with French maid outfit and thigh-high stockings.
Meanwhile, Ben, a psychiatrist, seems to be treating only one patient: Tate (Evan Peters, Kick Ass), a possibly psychotic teen who fantasizes about decimating his high school classmates. Tate shares a tender moment with Violet, as the two compare the scars of self-inflicted cuts like some sort of spoiled teen version of Quint and Hooper from Jaws.
Despite the inordinate amount of information offered in just under an hour, American Horror Story’s pilot episode moves by at a deliberate and frenetic pace. To Murphy and Falchuk’s credit, the brisk tempo serves the multiple converging plotlines well, allowing weirdness to befall everyone in their own unique way, while producing a myriad of questions for the viewer to ponder.
For one – though we sympathize with Vivien – there appears to be no clear-cut protagonist to the series. More often than not – especially in the case of Constance, Moira and the absurdly introduced Larry ‘The Burn Guy’ Harvey (Dennis O’Hare, True Blood) – everyone is hiding something from everyone else. Like the population of Murphy and Falchuk’s Nip/Tuck, the characters in American Horror Story are almost exclusively unlikable. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting, however.
There are some delightful ironies amongst the characters, such as Vivien’s aversion to hormones and every-day chemicals she considers dangerous, but yet she places her family directly in harm's way by moving into the house and failing to recognize the inherent malevolence of the place. Ben (possibly the weakest character so far) falls under the familiar trope of being a psychologist who doesn’t quite get his own family. It’s Constance, however, who steals the show when she declares how she appreciates lineage, and “considers breeding important,” but is not averse to sheltering the occasional “mongrel” – referring, of course, to her daughter having Down syndrome. The jab at Adelaide is both offensive and shocking, but Constance’s sense of motherhood still rears its head, when she displays a willingness to fiercely protect her child from others.
To that end, Murphy and Falchuk have made motherhood a major aspect of American Horror Story – almost to the point that it has become perverse and fetishized, stripped of its beauty and wholesomeness, as has nearly everything in the frightfully amoral world presented in this series’ pilot.
This being a horror story, the deconstruction of familiar tropes is likely the point.
Starting with an overwhelming sense of unease and foreboding, which soon cascades into an unrelenting torrent of Lynchian weirdness, it is very clear that American Horror Story is altogether a different kind of animal than those horror films waiting to startle you in your theater seat. Sure, AHS owes a great deal of its premise to haunted house films like The Shining and the classic versions of House on Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts - but if memory serves, none of those films had a creepster in a rubber bodysuit putting the moves on Connie Britton (a scene, which should encourage all couples to draw definitive bondage suit ground rules before ever utilizing one).
Latex bodysuits aside, the scares (or attempts thereof) in AHS are everywhere – which is both a credit to the series and a bit of a detriment. By the time the episode ends, the viewer feels so spent from processing the onslaught of disturbing images that an accurate assessment of the pilot practically requires another viewing – though FX likely won’t mind.
Moreover, as with most horror films or programs, the barrage of the unexplained likely leaves many in the audience asking why the characters respond to such supernatural threats in the manner they do. But it would be unfair to judge American Horror Story based on the supposed greater common sense of the viewer. The reluctance or complete lack of desire by Ben, Vivien and Violet to leave the house – despite copious warnings to do so – is well established.
Again, to the credit of Murphy and Falchuk, the presentation of a fractured family-on-the-mend is convincing enough that the abandonment of the house (at this stage) would be tantamount to calling it quits as a family – thereby absolving them (somewhat) of any guilt associated with whatever befalls them. It is the very question regarding the fates of these characters, and the promise of answers to the many questions posed in the pilot that should keep most tuning in.
American Horror Story certainly succeeds in getting viewers' attention, but as the series progresses through its thirteen episodes, will that be enough? For the series to work, it is going to have to do a better job of metering the shock with entertainment. That being said, the show’s creators have developed hits from smaller foundations that weren’t nearly as complex. Given the frenzied pace at which uncertainty is lobbed at the viewer, it would be premature to take a definitive stance on this series – other than saying that nothing else on television really comes close to this.
American Horror Story airs Wednesday nights @10pm on FX.