FX: where a biker drama, a crime western, surreal comedies, and that one show about sex-craved plastic surgeons can coexist effortlessly. Does anybody remember the Carver plotline from Nip/Tuck some years back? By far, it was my favorite aspect of that series because it employed trepidation and mystery, pulling it off in a way few shows can. So it's sensical that N/T creator Ryan Murphy, after an equally frightening detour into glee clubs, would be a driving force behind American Horror Story, TV’s latest venture into…well, horror stories. I can’t speak for the series as a whole, but have no problem declaring this one of the most engaging pilot episodes I’ve ever seen. Eat shit, Lost.
This second paragraph could start with its own list of horror-tinged TV shows, but most are so fucking forgettable. What makes American Horror Story work for me from the get-go is the blending of familiar horror tropes with familiar dysfunctional family tropes, then throwing a surreal cloak over the whole thing. Haunted house, suspicious neighbors, and over-emotional teenagers. Check. Omniscient, mentally-challenged girl, babies in jars, and a leather suit with a mind of its own. Check. Plus a thousand other things. This isn't a show that slows down and chew a scene before zipping to the next uncomfortable moment. It probably doesn't know how. Some people will object, and I object to those people. Give me this any day over the yawnfests that are Mad Men and anything on CBS.
The initial mood is set in the 1978-set cold open, where two redhead boys go all Carlos Zambrano inside the abandoned previously–mentioned house, which comes complete with basement stocked with ghoulish and ghastly jarred specimens lining every shelf. Alas, karma comes down on these kids, immediately, because not even bloodthirsty shadowy baby ghost-things like gingers.
One complete tone change later, we meet the Harmons, the family in which the females have more control and masculinity than the males, assuming that yappy ass dog is a male, because I didn't pay attention. Vivian Harmon (Connie Britton) moves her family from east coast to west coast after suffering a miscarriage and soon becoming the unwilling voyeur to her psychiatrist husband's nude tutoring (nudoring?) of one of his students. Husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott) has little going for him as well, given that sexual encounters are his only apparent source of emotion and nutrition. Maybe this is me projecting on McDermott's unshaven face. The two have a teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), the "cool" kid who curses in front of her parents and tattoos her arm with a razor blade, you know, for the scarring pain and shit.
Did you just ask if there were any wacky minor characters? Only all of them, in various levels of entertainment value. Star power goes to Jessica Lange as Constance, the pride-oozing nosy bitch of a neighbor whose history obviously intertwines with the house. Lange is so campy, her last name could be Voorhies. I refer to the mother here, as she plays the role maskless. Addy (Jamie Brewer) is her mentally-handicapped daughter who sees dead people and has the ability to tell living people the house will kill them. She's Haley Joel Osment 2.0, only more mentally challenged, so back to 1.0. Tate Langdon (Evan Peters) is Ben's first patient, a mass-murder-minded teenager who attracts the eye and partnership of Violet, going so far as to tell her the correct way to slit her wrists if she doesn't want them sewn back up. Ahh, teenage love.
I pair these next two together due to the over-the-top nature of the characters, as well as both having brief storylines that should have been stretched across a few episodes rather than burned off right away. Metaphorically tethered to the house is Moira, the wizened housekeeper who's seen generations of homeowners come and go in most assuredly gory ways. Moira's instantly recognizable trait is strange. Only Ben sees her as played by the young, sexy Alex Breckenridge, while everyone else sees her as the pre-elderly wicked-eyed Frances Conroy. The second character is previous homeowner Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare): burn victim, arsonist, family murderer, and cancer patient. His introduction involves standing in between clothesline-hung linens during Ben's masturbation scene after finding Young Moira prodding her own private parts. The fact that this isn't the most depraved sequence says plenty about the show. Later on, Violet sees Old Moira near-successfully coming on to Ben, turned on by his view of Young Moira. Discomfort all around.
Coherent storytelling takes a backseat to compartmentalized moments, which has as many positives as negatives. The writing has characters doing the things these people do, telling the audience what to expect, rather than something more organic happening . Considering some of horror's most popular artifacts have plots that can be summed up in a line of Microsoft Word, the amount of narrative threads introduced could turn out to be admirable, or a disaster if the writers favor spectacle over satisfying conclusions.
Arguably the standout slice of oddball pie is the promo-friendly full-body S&M suit Vivian finds in the attic. (In a three-story house, who hangs out on the third floor?) As if sex wasn't showcased enough here, the suit only comes into play after Ben and Vivian have a blame-throwing argument about who was the bigger bad guy after the miscarriage. Ben, who found solace in college poon, or Vivian, whose love for her yappy dog was the reason Ben was driven to find solace in college poon? Of course this anger turns to lust, and they have sex for the first time in a year. Later, while Ben is further foreshadowing the "fire" motif, Vivian mistakes the now-mobile disembodied suit for Ben in disguise looking for Round 2, and unsexy-sex ensues. One has to assume Mr. S&M is into sloppy seconds. In bed that night, the wavering "I love you" the couple shares is a great moment, when one recalls all the batshit craziness that occurred beforehand.
The "fire" angle is one that I am not comfortable with, as it signifies a possible endgame that the series may turn to. Burn victim Larry works best when he doesn't tell melodramatic stories, and only hides between bed sheets, but this could turn around should he return often. If not through full-blown discussion, Larry should at least give Ben some insight into Moira's ageless tactics before things get to wild. How boring would that be?
I also have mixed feelings about the teenagers' plotline. Violet bears the screamo rant of a walking Midol commercial, who overreacts to a cigarette's presence on school grounds. This girl bully later assaults Violet in the halls for one reason or another. On Tate's advice, Violet invites the girl to her house, promising quality blow. The girl instead finds herself strobe-lit and attacked by a bloody-mouthed demon creature. Violet is privy to these spooky events, but Tate acts as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Does he have something to do with the house? Is he a leftover from Heroes? Time may tell.
Just as everything else about this pilot is polarized, so goes the ending. The more enjoyable scene has Moira catching Constance going through Vivian's jewelry on the sly. Constance takes offense and tells Moira, "Don't make me kill you again." Did I enjoy it based solely on how ludicrous the sentence sounded coming out of Lange's mouth? Perhaps. But it was no more ludicrous than the closing seconds where Vivian and Ben react to Vivian's non-declaration of pregnancy. Beyond the opening scenes, there is no indication of how much time is passing, so while the obvious shock is not knowing whether Ben or S&M Thing will be the father, I am more shocked by the speed in which Vivian found out about the pregnancy.
It looks great, it sounds great, it's performed by decent actors, and there's room for an original story to be told amongst all this flashy repetitive claptrap. Shamefully, I love you already, American Horror Story, so prove to me that you can continue earning this love.