TV Review: American Horror Story

It’s just like Glee! With more gimps!

Whew… I’m not even sure where to begin this post.  I don’t know what I was expecting out of this show.  If you can’t read the fine print above, the poster is notifying you that it’s on FX, and from the creators of Nip/Tuck and Glee.  Obviously FX is responsible for some pretty good original television, Nip/Tuck was a rich, compelling show that pushed the boundaries of decency, and Glee is a pop culture juggernaut.  Not only that, but I LOOOOVE horror.  But how well does that genre translate into a season long cable show?  No easy fit, if you ask me, to shock and awe under the shackles of the TV parental guidelines while STILL appealing to a population that made Two and a Half Men into a top 20 ranked program every single year since it launched in 2003.

“Cancelled after one season? Yeah, that seems fair. Just make sure to give our money to Charlie Sheen’s cocaine addiction.”

Basically, I’m trying to say that it’s tough for a genuinely well crafted, thoughtful, and unique show to succeed on television.  It has more content constraints than a movie, it has to fill an entire season’s worth of compelling story (presumably more), it has major budget limitations, AND it has to have broad appeal.  So given all that, I’m skeptical of a show that markets itself as redefining horror in America.  But I’m willing to go out on a limb, sacrifice a date night, and give something new and innovative a chance.

“This is so much better than getting laid.”

The payoff: the pilot left a serious impression on me.  I know that’s a pretty neutral by itself, so allow me to explain.  First of all, cinematically I felt like these guys really pulled out all the stops.  This show seemed to pull just about every horror technique in book.  They used the crooked hallway zoom in shot.  The pulled the stop and chop edit style that makes it look like someone is lurching forward through small chunks of time.  They utilized the subliminal quick frame character replacement, the kind where you’re not even sure if you saw someone on screen.  They hit you with a normal scene quickly interrupted to something bloodied and disgusting, and then back to normal.  Combine that with a decently suspenseful musical score, and it made for some some pretty intense moments just sitting around the TV.

Not only that, but half of these characters are cranked up to 11 for most of the show.  I’ll start from the beginning by saying that story centers around a family of three moving to LA trying to get a fresh start, away from the demons of their past.  I hate to give away spoilers, but suffice it to say that mom and dad, played by Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott respectively, have been met with some serious challenges to their marriage.  Some of these problems were a result of forces beyond their control, some they visited upon themselves.  At any rate, they try and escape that negativity by trading coasts, their high school aged daughter in tow.  McDermott plays Ben Harmon, psychologist and repentant husband.  Britton plays Vivien Harmon, stay at home mom and smokin’ hot wife.

If my wife looks like this come middle age, my son is not allowed to bring his friends over.

Newcomer Taisa Farmiga plays their adolescent daughter, Vivian, who comes saddled with all the teenage angst and neuroses that accompany being, well, an adolescent daughter.  Especially in light of the family problems and a move to a new high school.

Other supporting characters?  How about the crazy, aging southern belle neighbor who has no problem with the occasional B&E, or calling her daughter a “mongoloid” that she should have aborted when she was pregnant.  Or the peeping tom burn victim.  Or the psychotic kid Dr. Ben is treating because he dreams of killing his classmates.  Or the octogenarian ghost maid that pleasures herself mid-shift the family room.  Seriously, when I told you these characters were cranked up to 11, I wasn’t kidding.

As far as the content constraints that I mentioned earlier in terms of television shows, I think the FCC must have just said “to hell with that” because this was some pretty graphic programming.  Sex, violence, gore, nudity, language… it’s all there.  So yeah, the pilot episode was damn compelling.  Plenty of suspense, originally compelling, dark, gruesome, and all set against a rich backdrop of fascinating characters and weirdness.  I just don’t know if it will last.  I don’t know because…

a) I’m not sure the show can sustain that kind of pace and potency, and
b) I’m not sure that they will be able to find an audience.

So I’m a little torn, but hopeful.  Long story long, definitely check out the first episode.  You may love it.  You may hate it.  But goddamn if it wasn’t something new and substantial in a sea of crappy sitcoms, remakes, and reality TV.  I’ll be watching the rest of the season with my fingers crossed.

Fuck I hate this show so much.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think about it?  Let me know in the comments below!

~Jonny Green

4 thoughts on “TV Review: American Horror Story

  1. I must admit that I am not normally a horror story fan. But you made me actually interested in seeing this guy. Well done Jonny!

  2. also, this show will have me saying “shit head” much more often…which i think is a good thing

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