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There are times when there's just no other word that will do the work of "cuckoo-pants."
FX's American Horror Story is produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, two of the three co-creators of Glee (they also worked together on Nip/Tuck, one of the dramas that put FX on the map). But this is no high school musical. It's horror, and it's not soft, classy horror, either. It's gory, gaudy, campy, crazy, and — yes — utterly cuckoo-pants. It is a gleeful lack of restraint cranked up to eleven. You should know that going in.
Just in the first minute or two, you will see a spooky house, haunting windchimes, hateful redheaded twin boys, a prophetic girl with Down syndrome (she is a grotesque, indeed, but no more than anyone else, for what it's worth), and babies in jars. That's just the flashback to 1978.
In the present, the house is purchased by the Harmons: Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben (Dylan McDermott) and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Vivien and Ben's marriage is troubled, and Violet is the kind of kid who likes to befriend the creepy teenage patients her psychiatrist father is treating. The next-door neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange), apparently just got here from the Caftan-Wearing Nutbar auditions at central casting. (Just after I saw the premiere this summer, I read two different reviews referring to Lange "swanning" around the house, and that's really the only way to put it.)
The producers call American Horror Story a "psychosexual thriller," and you can think of it that way if you like. But it's not a humorless and heavy psychosexual thriller that's trying to convince you it's not the "BOO!" kind of horror piece. It is exactly the "BOO!" kind of horror piece. It's got a dog who barks at the door where something terrible lurks, it's got the creepy music, it's got the strange visions, and naturally, it's got the bondage outfit apparently abandoned intact in the attic.
What, your house didn't have one when you moved in? Maybe you didn't move into a house that was most recently the site of a murder-suicide. That was your first good decision.
The most important element in the pilot is Britton, whom you may know as Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. While the things that are happening to her are off-the-map ridiculous, her reactions are beautifully genuine. Her first scene with Lange is startlingly funny, because Lange is playing Your Crazy Neighbor In A Horror Movie, and Britton is always fundamentally relatable, so there's a certain observant attention to the fact that Vivien as a character who could have shown up on a high-end drama has stumbled into the world of genre entertainment, for good or for ill. And it's not a high-class take on genre, the way The Walking Dead is. It's straight-up horror, with all the gratuitous violin shrieking that entails.
Murphy and Falchuk seem at times to be exploring excess for its own sake: there are multiple shots in the first episode of McDermott's naked behind, just kind of ... because. The allusions to kinky sex are the same way — why wouldn't you throw them in? I'm sort of surprised they didn't throw in a pie fight and somebody getting tied to the railroad tracks.
The very making of American Horror Story is performative as much as creative, and that's going to turn off a lot of people. The show isn't made just so the show can exist; the show is made to demonstrate and wave around its own uncompromising commitment to its pulpy tone, ungainly plot and hectic pacing. It screams for attention, it disdains subtlety, and it dares you to like it or hate it. I happen to like it, especially because there's only one of it. I can't really disagree with anything, for instance, that Alan Sepinwall wrote in his brutal pan of the show, like the fact that "really all it's about is whatever cool thing Murphy and Falchuk wanted to do next." I just didn't mind.
As I recently wrote, I am far more burned out and disheartened by joyless manufacturing of the likes of Charlie's Angels than I am by passion projects that are sometimes wildly judgment-impaired but never boring. This show isn't good or bad, exactly, it's just utterly ... bazoo. I wouldn't watch more than one show like it, but I find myself sheepishly glad there's one.
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