American Horror Story
Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Starring Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, Jessica Lange, Jamie Brewer, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare
Air Date: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 10pm
American Horror Story, the new series from Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, seems to be heading in a potentially interesting direction if the pilot episode is anything to go by. But I won’t be going along with them.
First off I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Murphy (whose other crimes against pop culture include creating Nip/Tuck and writing and directing Eat, Pray, Love) or any members of the American Horror Story cast, including Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton (although she was good on Spin City and Friday Night Lights), and Jessica Lange. It’s a mixed bag of overrated talent that grates my nerves whenever any of them are on screen and it doesn’t help the actors that the characters they play are unsympathetic and the material dull and pretentious. By the way, this is supposed to be a haunted house story.
The show revolves around the Harmon family: father Ben (McDermott), a therapist who can’t keep his dick in his pants; mother Vivien (Britton), a cellist turned homemaker; and their troubled daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). The Harmons have traveled across the country to their new home in Los Angeles, a beautiful house that has a very disturbing history. The realtor points out that there was a murder-suicide committed in the house in the past, but that doesn’t deter the Harmons from settling in with little reservation. Things start out fine for everyone except Violet, who invites the wrath of one of the female students at her new high school. Ben uses an office in the house to see his patients out of, but his first case is a high school student named Tate (Evan Peters) who fantasizes about murdering his classmates. Ben wants to help Tate but when the kid starts hanging around Violet, Ben immediately objects. Meanwhile, the oddball mother and daughter Constance (Lange) and Addy (Jamie Brewer) keep hanging around the house, particularly Addy, who has the ability to show up ominously and tell the Harmons that they’re all going to die in the house. The Harmons came to the new house a broken family in need of serious mending and their familial bond will be put to the test as evil forces that dwell in the house they now call home start to manifest in the form of horrifying visions and apparitions. In order to survive they will be forced to face their darkest fears about themselves, and each other.
A lot of hype has been building up around this show and I wish to keep this review as free of spoilers as possible, but I will mention some things about the pilot that I found worthy of discussion, so if you want to go into this show knowing as little about it as possible then to quote Tim Bisley on Spaced, “Skip to the end.”
Anyone expecting this show to be an all-out frightfest is bound to be greatly disappointed. American Horror Story is designed to be a modern take on the time-honored ghost story sub-genre of horror but the horror in the pilot is (mostly) purely psychological. Maybe that’s the tone Murphy and Falchuk are going for here, to turn the haunted house story into a metaphor for the gradual splintering of an already dysfunctional enough family. That’s a bold approach to horror television that would work perfectly for a basic cable series, but as I mentioned earlier it’s not exactly the kind of show that will sink its hooks in you. American Horror Story doesn’t appear to be doing anything audacious with its tired central story other than throwing in sexual overtones without purpose or relevance.
The slow burn pacing would be more effective if we were allowed to spend time getting to know the characters rather than having the skeletons in the Harmons’ closet come spilling out right away and then piling on half a season’s worth of strange characters. In addition to the aforementioned Constance and Addy, we have the mysterious housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy), who appears to Ben as her younger self (Alex Breckenridge) to play on his sexual appetite and insecurity, and Larry (Denis O’Hare), the shadowy creep with a face half fried off and an interesting connection to the house. Larry fits nicely into the horror stereotype of the lunatic who warns people not to go to that haunted house or that summer camp where all those teenagers got hacked up. We meet all these individuals in the pilot, which runs 50 minutes without commercials. It all gets to be too much before the show can even find its legs. Either that betrays a lack of confidence in the central narrative or Murphy and Falchuk likely have no idea what they’re doing.
There are several similarities between the Harmons and other families from famous cinematic ghost stories, like the Torrances from The Shining and the Lutzes from The Amityville Horror. Like the Torrance family, the Harmons were nearly torn apart by a mistake made by the father that they hope the move will help repair, and it’s the father who is initially affected by the forces that inhabit the house. American Horror Story shamelessly cribs from the classic fright flicks of the past while simultaneously positioning itself as something radically different from what we’ve seen before, and it fails on both fronts. Granted, television shows that air on basic or pay cable channels aren’t often given the 24-episode season breathing space to develop as most network shows are, but those extra episodes are usually more of a detriment than a benefit to those shows. Cable television series are given shorter seasons for various reasons, but the best one is that with truncated seasons they are able to tell more focused stories and concentrate on the plots and characters that are the most vital to the show. American Horror Story acts like it’s in a rush, and that ultimately hurts the narrative and leaves the cast confronted with material that doesn’t trust them. How can we be expected to know and feel for them when the show’s creators are too busy filling the screen with freaky imagery to give enough of a damn to provide the actors with decent material to play?
Technically the show looks good with moody cinematography by Christopher Baffa (a collaborator of Murphy’s from Nip/Tuck and Glee) and impeccable editing and sound design, but the acting is all over the map: Britton comes off as the most sympathetic because she can do more with a facial expression than most of her peers can accomplish with a full-page monologue; McDermott starts out as a likable enough guy but it’s not long for his trademark overbearing intensity surfaces and his performance once again becomes unbearable to watch; Conroy, Lange, Brewer, and O’Hare all mostly stand around being weird; and Farmiga is the typical sullen teenager starved for attention. Only Peters’ character comes off as the most watchable because of his unpredictable nature, but he tends to overplay his dramatic moments much like McDermott.
I’m a sucker for a good horror show so I watched the pilot episode of American Horror Story expecting good things, even though I think Ryan Murphy is an overpaid and overrated hack. The show has the ambition to be something worthwhile, but it lacks the interesting characters, storytelling clarity, and wit of a series like True Blood. It’s all too much and too soon, and sadly not enough. Unless you enjoy looking at Dylan McDermott’s bare ass.