I’m still undecided on FX’s “pyscho-sexual thriller” American Horror Story. I mean, that self-prescribed tag is eye-rollingly excessive enough, and that’s before you even see dead baby-bits in containers during the show’s jarring intro.
AHS’ blatant excess should come as no surprise because it’s helmed by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, creators ofGlee and Nip/Tuck, two shows that were built around an overabundance of extreme (almost X-treme).
There’s certainly an audience for that, and I respect them for pushing the boundaries of what can be done on cable TV. But when it becomes the focus of the show instead of an attribute, I start to lose interest. (I guess, for full disclosure, I should go ahead and say this now: I’m no fan of either show. Maybe it’s a little worse than that. Maybe I despise them for reliance on overtly extreme gimmicks instead of actual story telling.)
When reviews came out claiming the pilot would haunt my dreams, it felt like I was being tested, almost being dared to like it. After the subsequent three episodes saw a rise in ratings (practically unheard of in the TV world), the temptation became too great.
American Horror Story centers on the Harmon family, consisting of psychiatrist/cheating husband Ben (a mega-buff Dylan McDermott), artist/estranged wife Vivien (the always good Connie Britton) and typically troublesome high school-aged daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga).
The opening scene of the show alludes to a painful still-born delivery Vivien endured months ago, which looks to play a pivotal role as the series progresses. The family is forced to leave Boston after Vivien walks in on her father having an affair with a young student of his. They are able to swing a presumably slick deal for a house in the Los Angeles hills, but it of course, has a crucial flaw: it was the site of a husband-wife murder-suicide. Uh-oh, let the haunting begin.
In an unfortunate display of Falchuk and Murphy’s excess, Adelaide and this relationship isn’t thoroughly explored until the fourth episode. Instead, she is used as a creepy punch line: sneaking into the house when all of the doors are locked, talking to mysteriously absent individuals and warning visitors, “You’re gonna die here!”
Another interesting potential haunt introduced is housemaid Moira (Frances Conroy). Help to the former owners, she possesses some yet to be revealed knowledge on the personality of the house, and warns “mistreat it and you’ll regret it.” The show takes an interesting approach to this character; she appears as old and haggard to everyone but Ben, who sees her as a much younger, more tempting version of herself (played by Alexandria Breckenridge). This device is used to great effect, setting up unfaithful Ben for awkward close calls with his family.
Denis O’Hare plays Larry Harvey, the disfigured, brain cancer-ridden homicidal ex-tenant. Larry tells Ben his story of murdering his two daughters and wife. After warning Ben of the trouble his family faces, he runs off. OK, Harmon family, that’s three eerie warnings about your hard-to-beat deal of a home, maybe it’s time to relocate?
Finally, we have Tate (Evan Peters), the oh-so-pitifully troubled high school youth, who can’t decide if he’s actually crazy or just starved for attention. The show casts him as one of Ben’s patients, allowing the story to explore his maniacal musings through therapy sessions.
It’s with this character that Murphy and Falchuk’s flawed excess really shines. Tate’s teenage psychosis crosses the line from troubling to comical as he delivers, with a calmly crazed straight face, gems like, “I prepare for the noble war...I know what’s coming and I know no one can stop me, including myself.” And, “It’s a filthy world we live in, a filthy god damn helpless world, and honestly I feel like I’m helping to take them away from the shit and the piss and the vomit that runs in the street.”
The series tackles a classic of American horror—the haunted house—in a predictably slow TV manner. Cautiously unraveling each character and their back story, careful to build suspense enough to keep the audience interested, and of course, teasing with a half-reveal in the closing seconds of each episode. All very formulaic, which I have no problem with (again, I love all horror, especially when the plot follows rigid structure), but when a show begins to force its quirkiness on the viewer, the experience becomes a painful exercise in cliché spotting.
Even with too much of Murphy and Falchuk’s signature style spattered throughout the series, there is certainly some potential for great horror here. With saving graces like Connie Britton’s hurt, hesitant wife, the plentiful amount of scares and the haunting sound design, the show can absolutely succeed beyond its core audience. Just take out some Glee and inject a little Argento. That’s the right kind of extreme.
American Horror Story airs Wednesdays on FX at 9 p.m.