AMERICAN HORROR STORY Series Premiere Recap: ‘Pilot’
October 6, 2011 by Ben Phelps
About two-thirds of the way through the series premiere of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, as they stare at the freshly uncovered murals in their new parlor room, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) tells wife Vivien (Connie Britton) a story one of his psychology professors once told him. “People tell stories to cope with their fears,” he tells her. “All art is created to give us some sense of control.”
If that is, in fact, the case, then Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have some pretty intense fears and control issues. The GLEE co-creators have returned to FX (where they worked together on the Murphy-created NIP/TUCK) to bring to life their vision of one of the most disturbing, chaotic, and bizarre series television has ever seen. It’s sure to polarize viewers, but one thing is for sure: there’s nothing else like AMERICAN HORROR STORY.
The premiere opens in 1978, with a young girl with Down syndrome standing outside an old, run-down house. Red-headed twin bullies show up, ignore her warning that they will die inside, and proceed to enter the house and smash everything in sight. But lo and behold, they are gruesomely killed in the basement, and…
Cut to present day. Vivien, who has recently suffered a miscarriage, returns home from a doctor’s appointment, only to catch her husband sleeping with a much younger woman. But since, as we later find out, they “still love each other,” they decide to move with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) from Boston to Los Angeles to start over, and move into the very house where the two young boys (and, apparently, several others) died years before.
From there, about any and every strange, outlandish, sexual, off-putting thing you can think of happens. Vivien and Ben finding a black leather S&M suit in the attic? Check. The now-grown girl with Down syndrome randomly showing up in the house? Check. Said girl’s kleptomaniacal Southern mother, Constance (Jessica Lange), also showing up uninvited? Check. The housekeeper appearing to Ben as a hot, young maid (played by Alex Breckenridge), but to everyone else as an old lady (Frances Conroy)? Check. Ben masturbating in his study after catching the maid doing the same? Check. Really, the list goes on and on, but you probably get the picture.
It’s not that the pilot felt overstuffed – one or two fewer crises and WTF moments may have been nice, if only to give the rest of them some breathing room — but Murphy and Falchuk clearly wanted to establish that anything could (and probably will) happen. The bigger issue is that nearly nothing that happened had any reason for happening, other than to create a sense of unease and horror. Ironically, though, by piling on the supposedly shocking moments (including one of Violet’s bullying classmates being terrorized in their basement and Vivien having sex with a man in the leather suit, whom it is implied isn’t Ben), the reaction becomes less edge-of-your-seat tension and more did-that-really-just-happen? bemusement.
It’s too bad, because there are some promising elements. Britton, as expected, turns in a great performance, and one about as different from Mrs. Coach as possible, while McDermott, though no Kyle Chandler, holds his own as the sexually-starved and ironically unstable psychiatrist. Along with Farmiga, who gracefully keeps the troubled teen from falling into cliché, the Harmon family is in good hands. They’re over the top, yes, but still believably serious and real (even if McDermott yells a bit much).
But when the Harmons are placed in contact with Constance, who raises the camp level to 11 in every scene she’s in, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work when Violet starts at her new school and a group of stereotypical mean girls tries to make her eat her own cigarette. Or when Britton, with a straight face, tells Constance’s daughter to stop telling her she’s going to die. The show is trying to be a little bit of everything in the hopes of scaring and thrilling its audience, but, in the process, the tonal dissonance turns it into basically nothing.
Murphy has shown time and time again that he has little interest in consistent characterization or logical plotting, but it usually takes him a while to get to that point. GLEE, for instance, had a mostly solid first season before it fell off the tracks in season two, and even then there were some bright spots. But he’s wasting no time on AMERICAN HORROR STORY, choosing to simply start with no tracks at all.
The genre certainly gives the creative team some leeway, since creepy stuff is supposed to happen, often for unexplained reasons, in a horror story. But they have taken that as a carte blanche to push the envelope and do whatever they want, even if it makes no sense and has more of a disorienting effect than a scary one.
Ambition in television is a good thing. Primetime is already littered with crime and legal and medical shows, and AMERICAN HORROR STORY is anything but another generic procedural. And after the unfortunate cancellations of TERRIERS and LIGHTS OUT, FX could use a hit, which this could very well be. I’d just love to see that ambition a little more focused, even though, with Murphy at the helm, it’s likely to go in exactly the opposite direction.
What did you think of the series premiere?
Filed under American Horror Story