TV Review - American Horror Story

Dylan McDermott in
"American Horror Story"
A friend posted a question on Facebook about the new series American Horror Story and it got me thinking about the few TV shows that actually try to do horror on a weekly basis. I'm not talking about the horrific murders that you get on the various cop or medical dramas. I mean shows that legitimately try to be like weekly horror films in terms of how they're photographed and edited, utilizing the elements of that particular genre, trying to scare their viewers or at least disturb them. I mean shows like Supernatural, The Walking Dead, Fringe, Teen Wolf and the other new series Grimm. All those shows are infinitely better than this mess of a program, but, hey, at least there's a lot of shirtless Dylan McDermott.

American Horror Story is essentially a haunted house, a concept that is a staple in horror films. Ever since The Amityville Horror, haunted houses as a basis for a scary movie is pretty hackneyed. As a movie, that concept can still be well used and well told. The recent Paranormal Activity is a perfect example, as it provided a fresh take on the concept and in many ways invigorated it.

Having a TV series about a haunted house and not be a comedy, after a while, would just get tedious because at what point do the people in the haunted house simply decide to leave and be done with it? Considering all the things that happen in American Horror Story, for the people to stay beyond two episodes becomes absolutely ridiculous, and, in the first two episodes, so much happens that in actuality to stay beyond one episode seems absurd.

The fact of the matter is this show is all over the place. The way the show is cut together gives it a very brisk and energetic pace. It moves along somewhat fast. It's walking, but it's taking big steps as it goes along, but it's almost as if those steps are on a treadmill because at the end of the day, it doesn't go anywhere.

It stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) as a married couple named Ben and Vivien Harmon. They're having problems. Specifically, Ben has had an affair. We find out that a lot of their problems sprang from the death of their baby child. Inexplicably, they move with their teenage daughter named Violet to a seemingly gothic home in Los Angeles. Ben is a therapist and decides to see his patients in the house.

This would be enough to get an interesting TV series going, but writers and creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk bombard us with a million other things. First up is the lore that something horrible has happened to every owner of the house going back to the 1960s and possibly further. The previous owners were a gay couple that supposedly committed a murder-suicide, but later episodes put that into question.

Next up is the neighbor who lives across the street, Constance, played by two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange. She at times acts like something out of a Bette Davis movie or a Tennessee Williams play or a combination of both. Constance has a daughter Adelaide who is smart and sassy, but she seems to have been born with one or two birth defects, not exactly sure what they are. Either way, both Constance and Adelaide barge into Ben's house at their leisure and often without invite. Adelaide sneaks in and out whenever she pleases. Constance likes to make an entrance, but it's only to insult and/or annoy her new neighbors or just appear to deliver ominous or foreboding messages. While she's not doing that, she's biding her time with a Midnight Cowboy, played by soap star Michael Graziadei.

Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) shows up as Moira, the maid or housekeeper. She normally appears as her 50-year-old self, but occasionally if not every time that Ben looks at her, she appears to be a 20-year-old, redheaded knockout. What the purpose of this is, I can't say, but the insanity doesn't end there.

In fact, it only begins. A disfigured man, with burn scars, pops up on Ben's lawn and begins to stalk him. A man all dressed in leather or some kind of all black rubber from head to toe enters the picture as an apparition every now and then. Less we not forget, one of Ben's patients is a teenage boy named Tate, played by Evan Peters who may be a sociopath and who has a strange obsession with Ben's daughter.

Most of this is thrust on us in the first episode, but the second episode continues the bombardment. I call it such because the editing is rife with jump cuts and a snappy progression that I can't understand it as anything but an onslaught on the senses. The makers almost dare its audience to keep up. With the near same mashup quality that Ryan Murphy puts into his Glee pop song selections, the second episode precedes to reference or simply rip-off a string of better made horror films. The cold open invokes an image from Zodiac (2007) with a score that samples Psycho. A couple of minutes into it, there is a nod to Insidious (2011) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Half-way through the episode, the writers are basically copying The Strangers (2008).

Maybe Murphy wants this to be the sick, horror-version of Glee, but in order to achieve that, one should care about the characters or have some clear destination. After the TV series Lost, I'm used to having a show that lays down a lot of threads and mysteries that may or may not lead anywhere, but as long as you anchor it with characters or character-driven stories I can go along. American Horror Story doesn't do that.

It feels like each moment and each scene wants to be shocking or more provocative than the last for no reason than because it wants to be shocking or provocative. An example was its fourth episode named "Halloween: Part 1." The episode begins with the gay couple who were the previous owners, Chad and Patrick. Chad is a Nazi, Martha Stewart-type, played by Zachary Quinto (Heroes). Patrick is played by Teddy Sears (Raising the Bar). Patrick is apparently the most promiscuous of the two and cheats perhaps regularly on Chad.

I suppose this factoid is meant to mirror the adulterous nature in Ben. It's the only explanation as to why there is a scene where Patrick attempts to have sex with Ben. Ben has exhibited no signs whatsoever of homosexuality yet this scene exists. Why? Except for the minor factoid, there is no logic to this existence. Again, it seems like it's the show trying to be shocking and provocative but with no rhyme nor rhythm. It didn't advance things or reveal something that wasn't realized before. It's just there.

Following this, some random things occur, horrible and deadly things but random nonetheless. In my mind, they're desperate attempts to keep the audience caring and the characters tethered to this cockamamie contraption. I have no clue where this series is going but I certainly don't like where it is.

One Star out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.


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