Tuned In

Test Pilot: American Horror Story

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: American Horror Story, FX

The Premise: After Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) first has a horrific miscarriage and later walks in on her psychiatrist husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) having sex with one of his students, they move cross-country to Los Angeles, teenage daughter in tow, to start over. They find a romantically gloomy, Tiffany-accented 1920s house, which they get at a steal because the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. (The house, we learn in an introductory flashback, has a history of this sort of thing.) They meet the neighbors, including a catty Virginia-bred diva (Jessica Lange) and her daughter, who has Down Syndrome and an awkward habit of accurately predicting deaths. They also hire on the previous housekeeper (Frances Conroy), who is a proper elderly lady. Or she’s a horny, gorgeous young woman. Or both. It’s not entirely clear; as the Harmons adjust and try to deal with their trust issues, they also begin to experience unsettling, disorienting visions. Also, their troubled teen daughter—a cutter, who’s has trouble fitting in at every school she’s been to—befriends one of Ben’s young patients, who may be a psychopath. Or worse. Also, there is something in the basement, and the dog does not like it. The show comes from Glee’s Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, but nobody has much to sing about.

First Impressions: FX screened the not-final pilot for critics at press tour, and it has already generated polarized reactions. With good reason. This pilot is insane. In good ways and bad. It’s visually hallucinatory and disorienting; you will end it not certain which scenes you’ve seen are real. (I’m 99% sure this is intentional–you’re entering the same quasi-dream state as the characters–but it’s a risky device.) It’s genuinely, unrelentingly horrific and creepy. (Three words: things in jars.) And the Murphyisms are everywhere: the sardonic, bitchy grand dame character; the troubled teen outcasts; and especially the theme of sexualized horror and human corruption, physical and moral.  It’s a little like Ryan Murphy decided to make a Nip/Tuck sequel about The Carver, except not so restrained this time.

All of which is to say, if you are not a fan of Ryan Murphy shows, this show is your worst nightmare. Yet–for one audacious pilot anyway–I feel like his kind of hyperactive Dagwood sandwich of melodrama could work better in what is, after all, an unrealistic genre. The show needs emotional realism, though, and here Britton’s casting is a big help. (Dylan McDermott’s not so much; he plays Ben in the same shouty, sulky manner that he does any other character.) The pilot felt densely packed–there was a good half-season of story development crammed into it–and I could see it going the route of past Murphy projects, in which he’s piled on twist after preposterous twist to keep himself from getting bored. But tomorrow is another day! As a pilot, AHS grabbed my interest and kept me on edge. It made me laugh—sometimes even intentionally! It genuinely creeped me out, with an intensity of horror I’ve seen in few TV shows since Carnivale. And a haunted-house story is a fitting way to deal with Murphy’s longtime moral theme: as one character puts it, you can change the wallpaper and the kitchen, but can that cover up a rotten foundation?

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? I can see exactly how this show can go even more over the top and out of control. I know Ryan Murphy’s history. But it’s one of the only new shows this fall that has surprised me and made me want to see what comes next. I can hear you screaming, “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” Yet here I am, turning the doorknob…