Monday, October 10, 2011

Pilot Review: American Horror Story

American Horror Story (Wednesdays at 10:00 on FX)

After its premiere, American Horror Story has something going for it that none of the other new pilots this season have: curiousity. While many good shows debuted this past month, none of them left you with the sense of, "Well what the hell happens next?" that American Horror Story does. Unfortunately, that's the only thing this weird series currently has in its favor.

I would love to give you a synopsis of American Horror Story, but so far there is no plot. The 70-minute pilot served as nothing more than setup; there's no story yet, per se. A psychologist, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), and his wife Vivian (Connie Britton) move cross country with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) following the brutal miscarriage of a child. Following this tragedy Vivian discovered Ben having an affair with one of his students, and the move is an attempt to save their crumbling marriage. They buy a house for a crazy low price for such a nice neighborhood, and then they find out why: a murder-suicide recently took place in the basement.

That's the story that we have so far: the family moves. A relatively large number of characters come and go throughout the episode, including a teenage patient of Ben's and a potential love interest for his daughter, the Southern Belle next-door neighbor, and a housekeeper with a strange history. All of these characters are decently formed enough for an introductory episode, but it's the atmosphere and structure around them that is shaky.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee, Nip/Tuck) created and wrote (and the former directed) this first episode. It is obviously an homage to classic horror films and conventions, but there are so many present that they become muddled and horribly cliche: murdered twins, creepy neighbor, quick flashes of movement, ghosts in the basement, flickering lights, creaky old house, dog barking at nothing, hallucinations, scary stranger with a warning, objectified females, connections between the sexual and the violent, etc. It's a melting pot of creepy visuals, but they don't amount to much. It feels like it's trying so hard to be scary and/or shocking, that it just comes across as confusing. There's so much sex, so many jump scares, so many horror elements, but nothing with any real depth. Furthermore, the script is pretty ridiculous. Like any given episode of Glee, Ryan Murphy has once again hammered the themes of the show into the viewer's skull repeatedly, and in this case it is the essence of fear. Every character asks every character, "What are you afraid of?" And of course we are given many different answers, but that's not an organic way of structuring a script. I mean, Bram Stoker didn't have his characters always asking, "What do you think the consequences of modern living will be?" even though that's a major theme in Dracula. Because it's just not natural to write that way.

The acting is universally confusing. I'm not sure who exactly is grasping the correct vibe, because it's still not clear if American Horror Story is simultaneously an homage and parody of horror conventions, or simply an homage. Either way, Dylan McDermott is continuing to prove that he's no great actor and that he only has two modes of expression: whispering and yelling, and both while staring vacantly. Connie Britton is deadly serious as Vivian, not a hint of parody or camp in her performance despite uttering lines such as, "Ready for another round?" and then having sex with a man in a rubber suit who may or may not be her husband. Jessica Lange camps it up like a pro as the eccentric neighbor, playing a role straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. She brings some fun to an otherwise completely dark hour, but she's completely out of place. Frances McDormand plays the maid (and so does Alexis Breckenridge, in the episode's most clever twist) with the same level of inherent weirdness she always possesses.

I don't want to take away from how incredibly visually stimulating American Horror Story is, however. The house is fantastic; there's a lot of character to its features (huge fireplace, strange murals, winding staircases, etc). The special effects are generally good, and the underscoring is effective. But too much happens and too quickly to enjoy any of the moody atmosphere these well-done elements set. In just this first episode we get a double murder, a girl with Downs Syndrome, a maid in a fetish costume, a walking rubber suit, Dylan McDermott masturbating while crying, Taissa Farmiga cutting herself, baby body parts in jars, Denis O'Hare in burn makeup, a ghost attack, sleepwalking, a fantasy of a high school shooting, and so many other disjointed and disparate moments that just don't come together yet.

I will say this, however: I'll watch again. Not because I liked it, and not because it was good. But because of one line Jessica Lange recites near the episode's end: "Don't make me kill you again." And with that, I just have to know what she's talking about. I don't want to keep watching, but I will. After all, it has to get better, right?

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