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TBTS Reviews: American Horror Story

October 14, 2011

Welcome to the neighborhood, Harmons! Your lives suck and you

As I was watching the pilot episode of Ryan Murphy’s new balls-to-the-wall FX drama American Horror Story, one line kept popping into my head. Back in my advertising agency days, it wasn’t uncommon to hear — when one had written something especially gimmicky, schticky or transparent — the old ad adage “Be careful, your agenda is showing.”

Not that schticky, gimmicky and transparent can’t work — after all, Murphy has practically made a billionaire of himself for making the insanely successful Glee gimmicky (characters break into song) and transparent (the storylines have often very outwardly dealt with certain societal issues facing adolescents). But American Horror Story seems a little different. And although I consider myself a pretty highly tolerant person for the macabre, strange or absurd, everything about the show’s pilot and second episode seems a bit….much.

The story centers around the perpetually unsmiling Harmon family as they move into a spooky L.A. mansion; psychologist Ben (Dylan McDermott) is wracked with guilt over having had an affair with a former student, wife Vivien is brooding over Ben’s betrayal and the loss of a baby, and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is a social outcast who knows too much about her parents’ problems and routinely cuts herself. They are a grim bunch, to be sure, and we never see any of them laugh or participate in any sort of verbal exchange with one another that doesn’t seem melodramatically weighted down.

Depending upon which supporting characters in the show you ask, the mansion in question was a.) the former home of a gay couple who committed murder-suicide (they left their creepy latex bondage gear) b.) the former home of a regular joe dad who flipped out, killed his family and set the house on fire, and c.) the original home of a crackpot “doctor to the stars” in the 1920’s. Presumably, all of these demons still reside in the home, and now they’re ready to set themselves upon the poor Harmons. Side characters include disenfranchised and unstable teen psychology patient Tate (Evan Peters), seemingly shape-shifting housemade Moira (Frances Conroy) and skeezy southern belle Constance (Jessica Lange) — all of whom just seem to show up in the house at random times unannounced. They’re like creepier versions of Seinfeld’s Kramer.

But neither American Horror Story nor Ryan Murphy are particularly subtle. And, as I referenced earlier, it would seem to me that the “agenda is showing” mightily; i.e., the real “demons and ghosts” which haunt and torture us are ones of our own doing — infidelity, bullying, depression, loss, guilt. This approach isn’t as novel as the show’s creators might think it is. After all, horror master Stephen King has long since made the transition from physical monsters to the ghouls of American society and the family dynamic in his novels of the past fifteen years. The end game — as the shown agenda here hints at being — is that the monsters and ghosts of regret, shame and unhappiness are a shared experience of life itself.

Truly, I could probably stomach all of this in-your-facedness if not for the fact that American Horror Story is, at its core, just a very damn unpleasant show to watch, and Murphy and company seem hell-bent on making everything about it as wrenching and depressing as possible. It’s not enough that a former owner of the home (Denis O’Hare, so perfect in True Blood), for instance, appears to Ben to warn him of the house’s darkness, he must also have a horrifically burnt face. And if that’s not enough, terminal brain cancer as well. Even a violent second-episode home invasion, in which strangers set upon the house to murder Vivien and Violet and which would absolutely scar any normal family for eternity, is treated as a first-act build-up — the equivalent of the hissing cat jumping out of a cupboard. Traditionally, we as a people have enjoyed things which scare us and make us jump and take a certain amount of giddy excitement in such; here Murphy has ratched up the awfulness to a level that outside of a morbid curiosity to see what happens next, it seems almost like torture to watch the agony he’s putting his characters through.

The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic, either. Lange chews the scenery as an evil-ish Blanche DuBois character, Britton mopes and sulks through her scenes and McDermott infuses his Ben with such intensity that it’s difficult to find any character in the show one is able to truly get behind. If this is an allegory for the human condition, it’s been cranked up like an editorial cartoon to the nth degree. Damaged characters have historically had a place in television drama: Tony Soprano was a bad guy, but somehow you still liked him. Dexter murders people, but you understand why on some level. So far, a lot of American Horror Story seems dark just for the sake of being dark.

Though it premiered to good numbers for FX, it’s difficult yet to tell whether American Horror Story will retain its audience — normally I’d consider myself a strong demographic for a show like this, but after two episodes I already find myself hoping each episode is over more quickly than it is. It’s all fine and good, what Murphy’s doing and aspiring to prove here, but he’s forgotten that a key element of storytelling is for a writer/creator to connect to his audience. Bashing them over the head repeatedly from the first five minutes might get old after a while. I’ll stay around for another couple of episodes, but I don’t need Murphy to tell me every week that the world around us can sometimes be awful and horrible. That’s something we can all see and try to deal with in our own ways every day. I’m fine with hardcore drama or hardcore horror, but there’s just no Glee in this mix, sadly.

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