Pilot rapid-fire review: American Horror Story

The next couple of weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to beThe next couple of weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are probably evil geniuses. For nearly a decade and across two (now three) different series, the pair have carving out their own corner of television. This is a kind of television that has very little relation the kind of things that define most other televisual programs and products – you know like narrative coherency, character development, those kinds of things.

Generally speaking, Murphy/Falchuk’s brand of television is defined by what I like to call the “stuff happening” formula. Their series – Nip/Tuck and Glee – are struggle mightily with basic storytelling and character work and instead focus almost entirely on…stuff happening. Lots of stuff. Big, loud, exciting, moving, oftentimes fantastic stuff and most times terrible stuff. Murphy and Falchuk disregard a full, complete script or larger narrative, they are entirely concerned with making you feel EVERYTHING in that one 150-second scene. Then they move on to the next 100 seconds and try to make you feel EVERYTHING all over again. This is a basically a horrible way to make television, but when Murphy and Falchuk hit those individual moments perfectly – like the call-sheet sequence on this week’s Glee – you do, in fact, feel EVERYTHING. Like I said, evil geniuses.

This is all a preface to say that Murphy and Falchuk’s newest creation, American Horror Story, is the ultimate stuff happening series. American Horror Story is one of the most ridiculous scripted series I have ever seen, which is at least partially the point with these two guys.  And although the stuff happening formula requires for at least 40 percent of the sequences to be dreadful, American Horror Story ups the ante even more in its opening hour-and-change. There is probably at least a half-season’s worth of random plot development that happens in this pilot, none of it really explained or meditated over, but instead just spewed at the audience in leathery, black colors and sexually risqué tones.

The basic set-up of AHS is shockingly simple: A family moves to the west coast and into a presumably haunted house to escape the issues and fights (dead babies, infidelity) that were plaguing them on the snow-covered east coast. The most recent owners of the house perished in a murder-suicide and the Harmon family quickly realizes that this event isn’t the only mysterious thing about the house. In theory, I might be interested in watching a series about a husband and wife trying to come to grips with their past mistakes and reconnect with their aimless teenage daughter as a mysterious house manipulated their realities or circumstances. There’s a scene near the end of the pilot where Connie Britton’s Vivien and and Dylan McDermott’s Ben argue about their lack of sexual engagement and it quickly balloons into a larger yelling match about trust and emotions and it’s actually quite good. I’m so disappointed that she’s stuck in this mess, but Britton is always going to be bring her A-game and she pulls a solid performance out of McDermott as well. If the pilot was filled with more scenes like this one, I’d be more forgiving.

However, Murphy and Falchuk make such a strong and obvious effort to dress this pilot up with horror, mystery and thriller iconography, music and beats that any of the somewhat interesting character stuff is quickly glossed over. Creepy basements, weird noises, people randomly and continuously just walking into or appearing in the house (seriously, the number of time this happens is just laughable), maybe-spirits, maybe-monsters, S&M gimps and a man with a half-burned-off face, American Horror Story has it all! And the episode isn’t afraid to throw all of it at you in one scene and again, try to make you feel EVERYTHING.

But this is where their biggest challenge will be. Glee works so well in those EVERYTHING moments because the emotions are often connected to love, pride or some innocent kind of pain. Glee knows how make us cry. AHS is working with an entirely different set of codes and signs and is therefore trying to get us to feel EVERYTHING, but in a different way. It is trying to scare us, it is trying to make us feel uncomfortable or titillated with its in-your-face sexuality and profanity and while that can certainly work, it’s much harder to pull off with any consistency. Studios and creative types avoid long-form horror storytelling for a reason (the pay-offs need to be more immediate, the release of tension needs to be there) and trying to push the envelope with sexuality often comes off as overwrought, hackneyed and just dumb. It’s much easier to feel sad for Mercedes or Kurt on Glee than it is to be scared by what AHS throws at us or turned on by constant shots of McDermott’s ass or Connie Britton being quasi-raped by a gimp.

I’m definitely going to keep watching American Horror Story, mostly out of pure curiosity. I’m not entirely sure that there is a good television series in there and I’m actually not even convinced that there is a good Murphy/Falchuk “stuff happening” kind of series in there either. But this thing has the capability of becoming so terrible and yet so interesting that it’s impossible to turn away.

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