Friday, 7 October 2011

Review: AMERICAN HORROR STORY, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Friday, 7 October 2011
written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk / directed by Ryan Murphy
Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga,
Denis O'Hare, Jessie Lange, Alexa Breckenridge & Frances Conroy

If Matthew Morrison rapping wasn't frightening enough, Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk turn their attention to horror with FX's deranged haunted house drama American Horror Story (henceforth AHS). A family of three move into a creepy Los Angeles home—psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga)—aware it was the scene of a double suicide, but accepting its ghoulish past for the bargain it represents to buyers. Naturally, the Harmon's soon find themselves dealing with a variety of natural and supernatural oddities: from ageing neighbour Constance (Jessica Lange) and her handicapped daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) with a sixth sense; to resident housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy), an elderly frump who transforms into a sizzling temptress (Alexa Breckenridge) from Ben's perspective. Then there's the ghostly "Rubber Man" who wears a full-body gimp suit; gawky identical twins murdered in 1978; Ben's teenage patient Tate (Evan Peters) who fantasizes about murdering his classmates; and Larry (Denis O'Hare), the badly burned former owner of the house who survived a fire he started that killed his entire family.

There isn't much subtlety or restraint with AHS, as you'd perhaps expect from the minds behind Nip/Tuck and Glee. It wears its intentions on its sleeve, and doesn't have the patience to establish and develop a deep sense of mood. Crazy things happen and strange people appear at the rate of a theme park Ghost Train. The basic idea appears to be that the house preys on the inner demons and difficult pasts of its unfortunate inhabitants, to eventually push them into insanity and murder. Ben was recently unfaithful, so Moira appears to be a sexy young woman who wears maid fetishwear and tries to seduce him behind his wife's back; Vivien recently had a miscarriage and the episode ends with her announcing another pregnancy (the father likely to be the "ghost-gimp" she mistook as her husband one night); daughter Vivien's a victim of bullying at school and finds help from the disturbed Tate, who teaches her chief tormenter a macabre lesson she'll never forget. Maybe Constance's dream of becoming a Hollywood starlet was also ruined because of the house in some way?

It's a show designed to grab your attention and, as much as I hate to admit it, succeeds by pushing some obvious buttons. The haunted house genre doesn't seem to lend itself to serialized TV (it's hard to imagine AHS lasting more than a season, unless the plan is to introduce a new family/house every year), but for now it feels like it'll be fun to explore some of this show's underlying mysteries. Even if that just amounts to discovering exactly who the various apparitions are and why they continue to haunt the living. (In its favour, I must admit it's a fresh and amusing idea to have a ghost like Moira be employed by the people she's haunting, and there's enjoyable ambiguity about the mortal status of characters like Constance and Larry.)

The problem facing AHS is that it doesn't appear to be much more than surface-level shocks and peculiar imagery, as Murphy and Falchuk merrily throw ideas at the screen and hope most will stick to, alchemically, make this show scary and compelling. Unfortunately, while it's certainly attention-grabbing at this nascent stage, how many episodes will pass before audiences have acclimated to this mix-tape of horror tropes and start craving a proper storyline and characters you can get involved with? Not long, I'll wager. In the acting stakes, McDermott's a little blank and forgettable as Ben; Britton's character is written very thin, but the actress is the only one trying to spin gold from straw; Farmiga (kid sister of movie star Vera Farmiga) shows personality and promise; old hands Lange and Conroy are suitably uncomforting; Breckrenridge looks delectable in her saucy getup; and O'Hare already looks poised to steal the show as he did in True Blood.

Overall, I had fun with the sheer preposterousness of this show's style, a few of its ideas worked, but my abiding thought is that AHS will have to prove it has some substance very quickly, and that some of its creative decisions are very questionable (after the good work dealing with Down's Syndrome on Glee, it's all undone in very ugly fashion here). Ultimately then, AHS isn't much more than a cornucopia of steals from Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, Poltergeist, The Shining and The Amityville Horror. It should be given a chance to grow—and hopefully mature into something that feels more unique, without the childish desire to fling weirdness in your face every few minutes. At worst, it may attain so-bad-it's-good status.


  • This show debuted strong for FX, with 3.2 million viewers, equaling Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck premiere. This is below the premiere of Justifed (4.2m) and The Shield (4.8m), although a bigger total of 5m people saw American Horror Story when you include its repeat showing.
5 October 2011 / FX