Tuned In

A Second Look At: American Horror Story

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Michael Becker / FX

Connie Britton and Jessica Lange in "Spooky Little Girl."

Ghost stories are not usually stories about ghosts. They’re stories with ghosts, stories around ghosts, stories in which ghosts figure. There might be an interesting backstory to the ghosts, but the story itself, generally, is about the living people being haunted–what happens to them, how they deal with the threat, what they learn from their encounter with the other world.

American Horror Story was, as its creators described it, intended to be that kind of ghost story, one that used a haunted mansion in L.A. to comment Ben and Vivien Harmon’s marriage. Instead, it’s turned into a story in which the ghosts are much more interesting–not to mention more numerous–than the living.

With last night’s “Spooky Little Girl,” AHS added even more characters to its ghostly ensemble, with Mena Suvari’s Black Dahlia and Constance’s young gentleman caller. And the whole notion of saddened, angry, frustrated shades going stir crazy in that house together, forming alliances and rivalries–ghost politics!–as they try to get what was denied them in life is actually a pretty compelling turn on the usual setup.

When I saw the series’ loud, febrile pilot, I thought AHS’ would have the same issues as Ryan Murphy’s past shows Nip/Tuck and Glee–careening from one crazy plot development to the next. But AHS, for all its gimp-suit nuttiness and ghost sex, has been a pretty straightforward story with simple rules: people die in the house, they get trapped, they pursue what they wanted in life.

The Harmons, however, have grown progressively more dull in their familiar marriage-gone-bad scenario. Ben may be one of the least sympathetic characters on TV, and sulky Dylan McDermott has not made him unsympathetic in any engaging way. Vivien, meanwhile, seems missing in action even when she’s on screen. She began the series as an interesting, grounded focal character, and she could be again–there was something compelling in her near-desperate drive to rebuild her marriage and family on the foundation she had, rotten as it was. But lately she’s been stuck reacting to other characters more than acting, even before she got ghost-gaslighted off to the psych ward.

On the other hand, I kind of like what the show has done with its dead people–making them essentially like live people, with their desires and conflicts but with different tools at their disposal. Moira has graduated from being a clever creepout/titillation device to the most sensible ghost in the room, and I’ve been kind of shocked that Hayden, who was not much more than a plot device before she died, has become a fiendishly entertaining presence as a ghost.

Granted, the show is not nearly as meaningful as it seems to want to be sometimes. AHS wants to make big statements about the way we live, but it does things like using Moira to tie Vivien’s condition to the history of misogynist psychology throughout history, then undercutting that by revealing that the Rubber Man baby plan is being executed by baby-crazy ghost-women. Because ladies want babies so bad! It gives them crazy baby brain! And I’ll admit to being disappointed by the reveal of Rubber Man as Tate; I was banking on him/it being some sort of phantasmal creation of Matt Ross’ mad-scientist abortionist. (I don’t, however, get the criticism that the reveal was silly because Rubber Man looks much bigger than Tate. Are we really arguing the realism of the physical manifestation of a ghost? Because I’m guessing ectoplasmic phantoms have some flexibility there.)

In any case, next up is… The Antichrist! Or so, at least, Sarah Paulson’s medium Billie Dean says. Which could just be the thing to tip AHS back into the welter of over-the-top crazy I expected from it. For now, though, the show’s dilemma is: how can it give its living characters as much life as its dead?

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