Friends, I am not here today to argue that American Horror Story is, if I may use a critical-theory term, “good.” At least if one judges it by such factors as coherence, consistency or plausibility of characters’ motivations. The new series (FX, Wednesdays) comes from producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Like their current show, Glee, and like Murphy’s previous show, Nip/Tuck, AHS is full of provocative ideas–about sex, about identity, about America. And like those shows, it makes the Murphian mistake of assuming that having a whole crapload of ideas is the same thing as having a story.
And yet for all its faults, I will probably watch every episode of American Horror Story, at least its first season. Partly because while it is a disorganized, unbelievable mess, it’s often disorganized and unbelievable in an interesting way. And partly because in a horror story–especially a hallucinatory, highly sexualized horror story–Murphy may finally be working in a genre where way too much is just about enough.
That genre is horror, subgenre haunted-house story, sub-sub-genre haunted-house-as-metaphor-for-a-relationship story. It begins–after a creepy flashback involving an abandoned house, delinquent kids, and lots of things in jars–with Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) visiting her doctor, who recommends a hormone treatment in order to (Ryan Murphy Theme Alert 1!) counter the effects of aging. “Your body is like a house,” he tells her. “You can fix the tiles and the bathroom and the kitchen, but if the foundation is decaying, well, you’re wasting your time.”
This will come as a surprise, but what he’s saying has a double meaning! When we pick up with Vivien and husband Ben (Dylan McDermott), they’re moving from Boston to Los Angeles to slap up some wallpaper on a crumbling marriage and put some distance between them and the college mistress that Ben just broke things off with. They find a grand old 1920s mansion, on sale for a bargain because the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Alienated teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) loves the idea; Vivien and Ben run the numbers and decide they can live with it.
The house, of course, comes with some extras, besides the Tiffany stained glass. There’s a housekeeper, Moira, who appears to Vivien as a no-nonsense older woman (Frances Conroy) and to Ben as a saucy young temptress (Alexandra Breckenridge, doing a surprisingly good imitation of Conroy’s mannerisms). There’s a sardonic Southern-belle neighbor (Jessica Lange), whose daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) has Down Syndrome (Ryan Murphy Theme Alert 2!), a habit of turning up in the Harmon’s home uninvited and without a key, and a history of accurately predicting deaths.
And there’s the house’s gradually unfolding history, which apparently places it on the National Historic Register of Murder locations. It wasn’t just the last residents who died here, but a whole series, including the family of Larry Harvey (Dennis O’Hare), grotesquely burned from the fire in which he torched his loved ones, who shows up to say that the house drove him mad and to warn, in classic haunted-house-movie fashion: Get out.
The Harmons don’t, of course, which will probably inspire the usual why-don’t-they-just-move carping. But as in many horror flicks, I actually find this the most realistic aspect of the plot. Real-life people, after all, tend not to believe in real-life haunted houses. And beyond that–and beyond the risk of selling at a loss in a bad housing market–human denial is a powerful thing. People stay in flood plains and along fault lines, they stay in bad marriages and in countries with deteriorating political situations. They do not want to admit failure; they do not want to admit that their nightmares may be real.
That’s one of the issues here: knowing how many of the freaky things that quickly start unfolding in the house are really happening. The pilot episode tumbles by like a highly art-directed hallucination. There are horrible things going on in the basement–or maybe there aren’t. Ben’s young therapy patient Tate (Evan Peters) may have a psychotic connection to the house–or maybe he’s just troubled. There are strange people turning up in the halls–or maybe they’re just dream/fantasy sequences (Murphy Theme Alert 3!).
It’s a big download of fever-dream melodrama, but strong casting goes a long way toward selling it. Farmiga is captivating as a misfit teen (Murphy Theme Alert 4!); Lange is a stitch, albeit in a familiar role; and Conroy grounds a character whose history–and even reality–is a matter of question. AHS’ big casting misstep is McDermott as the sour, brooding Ben. McDermott, just as he did in The Practice and other roles, has two settings here: pouting and yelling. His pairing with Britton–a subtle actress doing her damnedest to find the actual human hurt and regret in Vivien–seems less a problem marriage than an ill-advised blind date.
This is a problem, because for all the early-and-often visual craziness, AHS’s core story does kind of depend on your caring about their marriage. Murphy and Falchuk have said they were aiming for a late-’60s/early-’70s horror vibe, but though I’d love to see someone try to do Cassavetes by way of Rosemary’s Baby for series TV, Murphy doesn’t have the subtlety or attention span for it.
What does become absorbing, over the first three episodes I’ve seen, is all the insane stuff that Murphy and Falchuk throw up around their central story. As the flashbacks and side stories pile up, the house itself becomes a more interesting character than Ben and Vivien themselves: partly for its baroquely gory history and mythology, yes, but also for the way it becomes a repository for all the failings and intentions-gone-wrong of everyone who has ever lived (and died) in it.
Like a real-estate agent showing off a murder house, I am obligated to make a disclosure. If you are worried AHS is not the show for you, it is probably not. If you are worried that it will indulge Murphy’s worst tendencies of growing bored with his shows and letting them dissolve into chaos and randomness–hey, there is a very good chance you’re right. (It’s already testing the extent to which people in and around the house can just suddenly turn up murdered without attracting suspicion.)
For now, though, I’m drawn despite the show’s flaws to the details and built-ins: the way the show owns its phantasmal craziness, the idea of a house as an anthology of dreams and sadness with four walls. It may well go completely off the rails and become unwatchable. And then I shall watch something else! That, in the end, is what distinguishes a TV drama from a 1920s home as an investment: it’s much easier to pick up and move on.