American Horror Story

American Horror Story: the 'psychosexual thriller' brought to you by the co-creators of Glee, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck - because come on, show-choir musicals and bubble-gum pop. The self-proclaimed harbingers of the "zeitgeist of our generation" (their words) are now midwives to a Wednesday night (10 PM) menagerie of hyper-sexual kinks and Bacchanalian cahoots, The Fall of the House of Usher-The Amityville Horror-The Shining-1408 style.


I never would have guessed.
I missed out on the online campaign (re: ominous YouTube titles like "Cello", "Baby", "Couples", "Coffin", "Lying Down", "Fire", "Stairs", "Melt", "Red Cello", and "Rubber Bump" [x]), arguably the best babies to be churned out by the show thus far. The episode-long pilot premiered on October 5th with the third episode, “Murder House”, set to air tomorrow. Check it, because your Wednesdays are about to get busy (competing at the same time is Discovery’s new Penn & Teller Tell a Lie).


American Horror Story is pretty - gorgeous even, but maybe that’s just the cognitive dissonance coping mechanism kicking in to reconcile the unrefined jumpiness and undiluted mess of the first two episodes. The show doesn't know what it wants to be, so instead, it tries to cover the gambit by being everything (literally, enter every horror trope possible). The overarching plot is lackluster, predictable: dull by the end of the first episode. The mansion is supposed to be mysterious, but it comes off as another prop because there is no anxiety or tension. As the "main character" of the show, it has a lot to live up to per the rule of location, location, location. It falls flat against its predecessors: the house in The Amityville Horror, Notre-Dame in Hugo’s novel - even friggin’ Disney World’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror heaves with a temper of its own. Where the house and script fall flat, the actors shine with an endearing brilliance. The casting rings true, and so it is that the characters’ nuances and interactions resonate, turning silly caricatures into flesh. Send the blood-stained drapery to the dryer’s; I would watch these characters on a talk-show. Fact: they are most certainly not a likeable bunch, but since when was the point of a show (book, anything) to create pleasant characters?

"WE ARE A FAMILY NOW"

Quick overview: the Harmons have problems. So, per the American way, they move from clam chowder New England to new! Edgy! Los Angeles! They also probably had to take out a mortgage on a flashy Victorian mansion whose former owners had a penchant for William Blake-esque murals. It’s an American dream giving way to an American horror story.


Connie Britton as Vivien Harmon

Except I adore Connie Britton defiant portrayal of Vivien Harmon. I love that the protagonist is this fiercely independent and ferociously maternal character. If I dress her up, she’d be Aeschylus's woefully stubborn Clytemnestra. There's a few consistency problems, but terrible screenwriting can neither crucify nor resurrect a character (my religious imagery is as subtle as the show). Our lovely Vivien is recovering from a miscarriage, a cheating husband, and is now pregnant, a la Rosemary's Baby. And in a stylistic Ryan Murphy refusal to ever settle for subtlety, the show's first season is meant to unfold over a period of 9 months.


Dylan McDermott as Dr. Benjamin

Ben Harmon has a problem. He’s a psychiatrist who, in a thinly veiled effort to make up for months (years?) of sexual repression (a miscarriage will do that), slept with a student (oh, expect much more surprises on this part), and sleazily tries to get back into Vivian’s pants. He has a nocturnal proclivity for somnambulist antics, pyromania, and runs with cancer-stricken-True Blood-meets-Freddie Krueger-ex-convicts. Oh Ryan Murphy, what did simplicity do to you when you were young to make you hate it so?

Denis O'Hare as Larry Harvey.

AHS can now claim "men in black", Jacob's Ladder, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, and every other CSI episode to its repertoire of allusions.

Taissa Farmiga as Violet Harmon.

I want to like Violet, so I will. I'm not too fond of her chaotically irreverent attitude or that she’s “one of those really smart cookie 15-year-olds who probably should be reading more Judy Blume or something” just because she reads Camus's "The Stranger" in "Home Invasion" (once again, subtlety: nil, dead horses: a lot) [x]; I’m especially not fond of the fact that this “really smart cookie 15-year-[old]” who can appreciate existential angst can't figure out how to slash her own wrists correctly (there are no trigger warnings on this show). I don’t know, I’m just getting the impression that Ryan Murphy's exposure to public high school was limited to Degrassi re-runs. Taissa Farmiga is deliciously snarky: she's got a bit of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and a hint of Wednesday Addams.

Evan Peters as Tate Langdon

Tumblr really likes him, and he reminds me a little of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, so I'm cool with that. My only problem is that in the challenge to make him edgy, the screenwriters made him into an over-the-top, silly chimera. But a sexy chimera?

Jessica Lange as Constance

I want to create an awards show with fifteen separate categories, select a judging panel, pick the classiest venue in America, nominate Jessica Lange for all of the awards, and then give her all of the awards. Money well spent.

Jessica Lange is perfection in this role. No doubt, Constance could have been a gaudy (disillusioned) Southern Belle, but no, not with Jessica Lange. Lange carries the spirit and temperament of some long-gone Golden Age. Constance is a wonderfully crafted character: she's mournful, proud, brutal, polite, bitter, decrepit, vibrant. She's endowed and entrenched in a spirit that diminishes everyone else: she’s the American horror story - the aspiring starlet whose youthful potential was saddled with four kids she hated/loved/abused. Constance is a reminder of the dominion of the Old South, an institution mired in its own guilt. She's a vestige of rank and caste, the reverence for rank and caste, and the pride and pleasure in them - so that she, much like the South, is "itself in bondage to its own romantic vision." To use another Mark Twain quote that applies as much to Constance as it does to the show's underlying theme, "The golden gleam of the gilded surface hides the cheapness of the metal underneath."

Frances Conroy as Moira

Alex Breckenridge as Young Moira
Moira is crazy in all the best possible ways. When a character whom you know next-to-nothing about just exudes a lavish, textured history, that's when you've got the best kind of crazy. Frances Conroy and Alex Breckenridge work together to express - with the urgency of an exclamation mark - a maudlin present and a wanton past.

Moira is an accomplished artist in the discipline of husband thieving; so this show will always be at the corner of Judgment Drive and Disingenuous Lane.

In Greek mythology, the Fates (those three gals who spun the thread of life [Clotho], measured and allotted it [Lachesis], and then cut it [Atropos]) went by the name Moira(e); there's a lot more Introductory Humanities course information on the conflict of moira (the will of the gods, an individual’s destiny), but what we’re looking at here is wishy-washy fate versus free-will talk, because, yes, Ryan Murphy is about as subtle as a deer in a bar.

This subtle.

Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears will play the former gay owners of the haunted house. I'm also down with that. The gimp suits in the attic were theirs. I am not so down with that.

There is also this rubber suit/gimp guy. Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband.

Sexual deviancy and kinks are horrifying and edgy but why would you ever assume that your vanilla husband would try on an old gimp suit from the attic.

So what is an American horror story?

I like that it's, from the get-go, an American horror story. The 2002-2010 wave of re-making foreign films was great for the industry, but bland and uninspired. Underneath the ritzy pizzazz of this show are the relics of something distinctly American, and originality’s always been the jewel of our industry. It’s no The Walking Dead, but that’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

So, of course, it's an American horror story in the sense that there are horror gimmicks and they’re meant to scare you.

But it's also an American horror story, because of the ever-present failed renditions of the American dream: the perversion and fall of the household, the Everyman who believes all the lies about success and self-realization, the dreams contaminated by foul dust, the inability to recapture the past, the romanticized view of the past, etc, etc, etc.

It's meant to be weird and creepy and unsettling. But if we follow along with the fixation on babies, children, and pregnancies, there's an underlying horror story about the imbalance and the degradation forced upon women. For the fancier critics who find the show guilty of misogyny, there's something to be said of the strong female-dominated cast. American Horror Story is one show in a long line that demonstrates that if there's too much of the feminine, rage and fury ensues. There's something wicked and vile about the clashes that bubble between the female characters (examples: all of them). On the other hand, if there's too much of the masculine, lust and war ensue: Ben's infidelity, Harvey's murder, Tate's basement pal.

And of course, the old mansion is written to inherit the flaws of its occupants. It renders the psychological skeletons into physical skeletons in the closet. It accumulates and heaves under the weight of the psyche. It's Numbers 32:23, "Be sure your sin will find you out." The trauma of the Harmon family is the deceit, treachery, and ruination of the holy matrimony. They usher in something foul - the imbalance of the feminine and the masculine, that they wage war. There should be a healthy unisexuality, under the unity of marriage.

But does that happen? Nope.


NOPE.
So, how to describe this show? It's a lot like Glee: flashy, glossy, pretty, but utterly lacking in substance, substituting depth and breadth with kitschy thrills. It's a prepubescent kid hyped up on high fructose corn syrup: buzzing with unchecked energy, but mistaking dispensable allusions for cinematic density. The end result is a Parisian hooker – cinematographic eye-candy (if a little too busy) that carries with it a whiff of sulfur and an utter contempt for anything austere or brief.

Still, it's the most interesting thing on television. It's also the weirdest assemblage of visual and aural stimuli that I've ever experienced in under an hour. Despite being a smörgåsbord parody of everything from The Strangers to The Shining (seriously, they're trying to break a record on how many cult classics you are physically allowed to reference in a single episode), American Horror Story accomplishes what it sets out to do: entertain and thrill but in a tasteless, aggressively assaulting, over-the-top manner. By god, it’s got potential – the potential of the nonlinear story-line, of the cycles of former residents. It seems to be falling apart by the third episode, because time and consistency just doesn’t exist in this show.

Should I watch this?

A commenter from ontdcreepy – an offshoot community of the celebrity and entertainment gossip tank site Oh No They Didn’t – SparkNoted it best on an American Horror Story discussion post:

“I watched it, and summed the whole thing up to a friend as "Whaaaaat the heeeeelll...?" I think there was some good stuff going on. I also think there was way too much stuff going on, as though the writers had a checklist. "You forgot twins! Twins are inherently scary!" "Ooo, good catch; wedging that in riiiiiight ... there!" "What about somnambulant increasingly-crazy father?" "Dammit, Roger, you're good at this!" It was an incredibly busy premiere. I get it: American Horror Story; it's a pastiche of movies and television before it, but I felt like I should have had a bingo card in front of me.

I may keep watching, for the bizzarro train wreck factor, but I didn't feel good after turning off the television last week, which I suppose is the point.”
Silgrey





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