Thursday, October 13, 2011


By now, I'm sure most of you have either seen, read or heard about American Horror Story, the new show on FX that is the creation of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (who also created Nip/Tuck and Glee). In its initial two episodes, AHS has proven to be very adult, extremely unnerving, chock-full of dark, twisted imagery, and so uncharacteristically excessive (for TV) in its horror that it is officially unlike any other horror series currently on TV. It has also proven to be extremely polarizing: you will either love this show or hate it. While that is true, I'm not convinced that it's all that simple, so here's my analysis.

"For sale--cheap." Wonder why?
We're a happy family... Not.
The first episode of American Horror Story begins in 1978, when two redhaired twin boys that my generation would have called "little snots" among other things, enter an enormous and dilapidated old mansion in L.A. to vandalize the place. Before entering, they encounter a small girl with Down's Syndrome who warns them, "You are going to die in there." Of course, they don't heed the warning, and they work their way through the house to the basement, where they find shelves full of specimen jars, skeletons, and lab equipment--and something else, which proceeds to kill them both. Proceed forward to today, where the Harmon family, consisting of therapist/teacher Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivian (Connie Britton) and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) move from Boston to L.A. in an attempt to save their family: Vivian is a victim of a miscarriage, Ben has dealt with the situation by having an affair with one of his students, and Violet is going through a protracted "misfit" phase (which, we see later on, is manifesting in a bullying problem, extreme self-loathing and cutting herself). The house that they buy is, of course, the old You're Going To Die In There house, which has been restored. Of course, the real estate broker does reveal that the house was once the site of a double murder-suicide, and there is, of course, an Air Of Foreboding about the place.

Cue supernatural mayhem, right? Well, yeah. Duh.

Except that it really isn't that simple. The house has been a site for murder and mayhem of old, which means that there is a lot more going on here, a lot more to come, and a lot of ghosts, and even though the first episode takes you by the neck and doesn't quit until the end, it still expects you to hang around and find out what's going on. Creators Murphy and Falchuk have already stated that the entire opening-credits sequence is rife with clues that have to do about what the house really is and what went on there, so any puzzle-lovers among you who went wild over Twin Peaks and The X-Files should be set for AHS's initial 13 episodes.

The Gimp Suit
and... Moira?

As previously stated, the house is rife with ghosts, one of which appears to be haunting a leather gimp-suit found in the attic, which was left behind by the previous owners. Though we know full well the house is haunted almost from the beginning, part of the interest of AHS is trying to figure out who of the numerous outsiders (who approach the Harmon family for one reason or another) is actually a ghost, since they all appear connected in some way to the house. Besides the Gimp Suit, there is the very batty and elegantly vulgar next-door neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange) and her "mongoloid" daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who is also the little girl from the beginning of Episode 1, who seem to be able to enter the house whenever they like. Soon after the Harmons move in, Vivian hires Moira (Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge), the mysterious "former housekeeper" who appears as a middle-aged woman to everyone else but as a seductive garter-clad young temptress to Dan. Dan must also deal with his latest patient Tate (Evan Peters) an intelligent and frighteningly disturbed young man who is developing a very twisted and dangerously mentoring relationship to Farmiga's broken, self-loathing Violet, and a strange, badly burned man named Larry (Denis O'Hare) who is a former owner of the house, which drove him to murder his wife and children by fire. Though all these characters initially seem to have malicious intent toward the Harmons, Constance prevents Dan from performing a deed similar to Larry's murder in the first episode, and in Episode 2 Tate, Constance and Moira protect the Harmons from police interference and possible incarceration by cleaning up the aftermath of a night of terror in the house when Dan is away and Vivian and Violet are terrorized by three murderous devotees of a serial killer who committed a double murder in the house in 1968. This suggests that whatever the house's final endgame is, it may be that not all the "ghosts" want to do serious harm to the Harmons, and perhaps some of them are even seeking redemption.



And despite the continuous bombardment of disturbing and horrific images (some of which are cliches of long-standing in horror, but done quite stylistically overall), the real horror of AHS lies not in the spooks but the suffering and despair of the Harmons, who are trying desperately to repair their family unit and their broken relationships. Vivian is having trouble forgiving Dan for abandoning her after her miscarriage and cheating on her with his student; Dan is angry at Vivian for shutting him out after the miscarriage and deals with terrible guilt over his infidelity, and Violet hates both of them for not being strong enough to either repair their marriage or leave it behind. All of this is key to really understanding what is at the bottom of AHS, and while it is presented in what might be considered a "typical" manner (anyone who has ever read even a bit of Stephen King's novels will have a working understanding of this plot point), the ghosts are secondary to the Harmons' struggle despite exacerbating it to some degree (especially Alex Breckenridge's side of Moira, who almost drives Dan around the bend in Episode 1). FX president John Landgraf stated in a recent TV Guide interview, "I do think there's an audience that wouldn't go to contemporary horror films in the theater that will really like this show if they give it a try," and the Harmons' quest to rebuild their family and leave their own personal horror behind could be seen as evidence of this. Thus, while horror fans will see nearly every cliche in the book in Episode 1, it could be viewed as a sort of primer for the curious non-horror fan: this is what to expect.

Vamp Moira: Hotter than hell
Is it excessive? Yes, but not in the sense of explosive, gut-wrenching gore or thoughtless murder (or the mayhem that much of After Dark Films or the 8 Films To Die For Horrorfest desperately wants to be, and touts itself as being). AHS's murders are horrific, but only as is necessary, and creators Murphy and Falchuk have already developed a reputation for delivering over-the-top excess in their shows (as can be viewed by one musical number of Glee or one operation scene in Nip/Tuck), so it comes as no surprise that AHS is off the rails in its imagery, sexuality and profanity. This is one for the adults, as evidenced by its time slot and frequent butt shots of Dylan McDermott (who does much of the nudity in the first episode), the seduction of Vivian by the Gimp Suit (who may have impregnated her) and the squirm-inducing, almost perverse vamping of Breckenridge as Moira.

So for my own part, I shall follow this to its end, despite the excess, cliches, slightly wooden acting (of which McDermott is especially guilty), and the time being used to set up the overall story, which from what I am reading in reviews seems to be what is really bothering most reviewers: that someone would take 13 episodes to tell a story that could be told in one two-hour movie (or perhaps a series of same). While American Horror Story will not give up its secrets so easily, one has to consider the reality of the current television horror landscape. This will most likely be the final season for the beloved Winchesters of Supernatural (who do seem despite CW's best efforts to be growing long in the tooth), and while Vampire Diaries and Secret Circle come from material that is above-the-norm by comparison to other teen horror, there is a definite sense that we should know the drill simply by virtue of paying attention to the last few years of pop culture phenomena. By comparison with those examples, American Horror Story is, very definitely, unlike anything else on TV.

American Horror Story airs each Wednesday on FX at 10:00 PM (9:00 Central), so check your local listings for times. The first episode can be watched here at the FX site (second episode should follow shortly). PARENTAL ADVISORY: NOT FOR KIDS.