This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff, who’ll review the show week to week, and Steve Heisler talk about American Horror Story.
American Horror Story debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Todd: American Horror Story isn’t very good, but everybody who’s a fan of TV should watch at least the pilot. There’s a fascinating—probably even very good—show just waiting to be made with this premise and this cast and these particular plot elements, but the pilot features a lot of jumping around, trying to make sense of stuff that should probably have played out over a season, rather than in a single episode. It’s a pilot that’s singularly confused about its tone. Does it want to be a straight-up horror TV series? Sometimes, it does. Does it want to be a serious examination of a crumbling marriage with metaphorical overtones? Yup, that too. Or does it want to be a campy, silly homage to the idea of horror, the idea of a story about a marriage falling apart? It also wants to be that. It’s a show from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, two of the guys behind Glee, and it sometimes feels as if this show is Glee if the musical numbers on Glee were replaced with shot-for-shot remakes of horror films.
The key to understanding any Murphy show (and any Falchuk show, by extension) is that Murphy long ago lost any interest in concrete storytelling. What he does is manufacture moments, and when those moments are powerful enough—any number of surgery sequences on Nip/Tuck, the kids coming together to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the end of the Glee pilot—they have a tendency to wash away anything else that doesn’t really work. Murphy’s pursued this ADD storytelling style across four shows, now, and it gets a little more sped up every time, a little less concerned with consistent characters or coherent storytelling or anything other than creating a single scene that captures you in the moment and makes you scream or laugh or sympathize.
And that can be fun, no question! Even the worst episodes of a Murphy TV series have some good stuff in them. It’s chocolate box TV, where every scene is something different, and you’re going to have a bunch of different tastes to sample throughout the hour. In tonight’s pilot, the opening scene—particularly once the two kids enter the house they’re told they shouldn’t enter—is a nicely spooky little tale, with a nice use of firecrackers to underscore what happens. There are also fun—or scary—sequences scattered throughout, including everything from Jessica Lange playing the campiest character in the history of Murphy and Falchuk’s love of camp to a surprisingly stark moment where the husband and wife at the center of this tale—played by Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton—tell each other they love each other but obviously are hedging their bets.
The problem with this kind of storytelling is that it tends to fall apart when you pull back to the macro level. Glee can kind of get away with some of this, because it’s about crazy, swoony teenagers, who are held hostage by their own passions and raging emotions. But it’s harder to make all of this blend together in a series that’s about ostensibly adult subjects, like infidelity or raising a child who’s obviously straying into bad territory or coping with the sadness that comes after a great loss. It’d be possible to blend this stark emotional material with horror, and it’d be possible to blend it with camp, but it’s not entirely certain that all three tones would ever work together in a way that wouldn’t be supremely uncomfortable.
Our central characters are the Harmons, Ben (McDermott) and Vivien (Britton), who’ve decided to deal with Ben’s infidelity—in the wake of the aforementioned loss—by moving all the way across the country to Los Angeles (like you do). They bring with them daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) and a little, yappy dog, and from the instant they move into their new house, it should be clear they’re moving into a work of fiction. A marvelous bit of production design, the house at the center of the story is so evidently haunted that it’s a wonder every door opened doesn’t contain a new type of monster flying out at the Harmons, like in a child’s pop-up book. (Honestly, it very nearly does have that.) From there, well… not a lot happens, even though a ton of stuff happens. Ben settles in and reopens his psychiatric practice. Vivien redecorates. Violet runs into problems at school. There’s a troubled patient and a goofy neighbor (Lange) and not one but three different characters whose primary function is to sit around and warn the Harmons about the house in ominous tones.
As you can probably sense from the above, the series’ greatest problem is excess. By the end of its second hour, it’s essentially written itself into a plausibility corner it can’t get out of, barring the playing of one fairly classic horror trope card, a trope card that only works if it’s held until later in the season. But Murphy and Falchuk have no idea how to slow this shit down, so they just keep piling on. The best horror stories—like the best serialized television series—have a slow, cumulative build to them, and when Murphy and Falchuk talk about the horror films that influenced them, they bring up titles that suggest that slow mount of psychological dread, like Don’t Look Now or Rosemary’s Baby, but they become too easily distracted by constructing scary—or silly—moments, so the entire pilot consists of an occasional scene of mounting dread, followed abruptly by the equivalent of the cat jumping in from off-screen in a slasher film. Over and over and over again. There are badly scarred men with horrible secrets, home invasions, a mentally handicapped girl with psychic powers, little yappy dogs, creepy basements, strange hints of an overarching mythology behind the house, horrifying paintings, and a bondage suit left behind in the attic by the previous tenants, because why not?
Actually, “why not?” describes much of what happens in this show. In the second episode, the famous shrieking strings from Psycho accompany a scene of a stabbing because, well, why not? Tonight, there’s a direct homage to a famous moment from Kill Bill—complete with the same song on the soundtrack and the same behind-the-head tracking shot—because, well, why not? McDermott wandering around with only a towel strategically covering his junk (he doesn’t even bother to wrap it)? Why not! Britton giving a searing performance where she rages at McDermott for his infidelity, and he sneers back at her like the villain in an old-time movie serial? Again, why not! Dark hints that the house is the true main character here and none of the actual characters? Sure, but good luck with making that work out.
Eventually, the overbearing assault of stuff stops being wearying and becomes hilarious. There’s a sequence late in the pilot where two characters lure another into the house’s basement, and it’s almost certainly meant to be scary, but what happens is so over-the-top and assaultive after such a long string of random things happening with no rhyme or reason connecting them that it becomes funny where the show was likely going for something much harder-edged. The main goal of American Horror Story seems to simply never be boring, and while it mostly succeeds at that, the assault on the senses eventually becomes numbing. Murphy and Falchuk are so intent on never letting your mind wander that they forget the most powerful way to keep minds from wandering is to tell a potent story or invent intriguing characters.
And yet there’s the fact that everybody who’s into TV should watch at least the pilot. It’s rare to have a show this poorly judged come along, rare to have a show this ambitious fail quite this much. Most TV failures are failures of non-ambition, shows content to just settle in and be something you’ve seen a million times before and bring nothing new to the table. That can’t be said of American Horror Story, a series that’s deliberate in its attempts to provoke you and get a reaction out of you—to the point where it seems like any reaction from revulsion to laughter will do.
Slow-building horror seems like such a natural fit for serialized TV that it’s kind of amazing no one’s tried it at this scale before. (Successful horror series like The X-Files usually break down into a new horror movie every week.) On the one hand, you have to admire Murphy and Falchuk for trying; on the other hand, there’s no indication that the two understand what they’re doing or even how horror works, beyond the idea of tossing potentially scary things at the audience willy-nilly. There’s a way to blend horror, camp, and domestic drama, perhaps. After all, Rosemary’s Baby did it. But these aren’t the guys to make it happen on TV. It’s rare to get an utter fiasco on television, but American Horror Story is one, and on that level, at least, it should be treasured.
Steve: Todd mentions that there might be a good show to be found in American Horror Story, and though he’s not optimistic, I really want him to be right. I like the cast a ton, and I think the central conceit of the show—an old-fashioned haunted house story unweaving with Twin Peaks-style deliberateness—is compelling. I’m just having a hard time seeing past how uncomfortable this show makes me. Like, wow. I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying this, but at one point, Dylan McDermott jacks off with much purpose, ejaculates, then weeps. Later, Connie Britton is borderline raped (I think?) by a ghost (I think?) in an all-black leather body suit, and the show was nice enough to show me Mrs. Coach’s face as she gets PLOWED BY THE BLACK VERSION OF THE GREENDALE HUMAN BEING. I suppose these scenes advance what little plot can be found in the pilot amongst the incohesiveness, but geez, c’mon!
This show is extremely unsettling, and even though the second episode is much more linear than the first, it still veers into gratuitous mystery-making and pondering-the-darkness-of-humanity-and-fleeting-nature-of-normalcy-ing. I know people joke sometimes about seeing something agitating and wanting to go hug a puppy, but this time I mean it. And I’m allergic to dogs. I do think Britton is great on the show as a woman working to rebuild her life despite numerous personal setbacks. And the more the supporting characters hint at their shared history, the more I think there’s a sort of Jacob-Esau from Lost thing happening—a much deeper mythology that the Harmons are only a small part of. But as much as I might be curious where things are headed, I just can’t stomach much more of this.
But maybe that’s the point? If so, I begrudgingly pat you on the back from a safe distance, American Horror Story.