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American Horror Story: Pilot

"Great. It's a real Addams Family house."

Ryan Murphy has always been criticized for pushing the envelope so much that his series become contrived and ridiculous. It's what he's become more or less famous for. Finally, Murphy has found the one genre which can survive such outlandish insanity, and unsurprisingly his new FX thriller American Horror Story is entirely batshit. This is a pilot that exaggerates the grotesque, filling every corner of an ancient California house with all kinds of ugly depictions of terror and menace. Most of this works in an off-beat, absurdist kind of way; but then there are elements which are so crazy that you can't help but cackle at how silly this show is.

Like always, Murphy has managed to convince legit actors to play characters who are more than a little wackadoo. The most obvious example here is Jessica Lange, arriving in her first series gig as a faded Hollywood wannabe who quit the movies to become the nutty lady next door who makes thinly-veiled threats while simultaneously spouting off charmingly offensive Deep South witticisms. She's crazy, all right; Lange going the full Bette Davis to play one of the campiest creations to come out of the Murphy wheelhouse.

The wonderful Denis O'Hare also intrigues as a former resident of the house who burned his wife alive and now stalks around the premises. I also really liked Alexandra Breckenridge and Frances Conroy (who is clearly the go-to actress for crazy old ladies) as two very distinct variations of the same person. That final scene between Conroy and Lange was fascinating. Are they basically good and evil, both fighting over control of the house?

The one weak link here is Connie Britton, but only because she's almost too good for this show. While everybody else is playing their parts like they're stuck in some community theatre version of Baby Jane, Britton remains tightly straight and naturalistic, trying to find the honesty in a show which ends with her getting impregnated by a ghost in a rubber fetish suit. I respect her for trying, but something tells me this material will only get nuttier. Unless the writers actually show some initiative and pursue the more human infidelity/miscarriage storyline, which should anchor the series if Murphy and co-EP Brad Falchuk have any sense.

Cliches are all over the place throughout the episode, but I guess that's natural for a show about a haunted house. There are the creepy red-haired twins, all the cupboards and drawers opening a la Poltergeist, creepy ghost women in the basement, creatures in the attic, the creepy housekeeper, the Down Syndrome girl warning everybody they're going to die, a disturbed teenage boy. The latter was the only element of the pilot I majorly rolled my eyes at. It cribbed a lot from the Nip/Tuck episode Enigma with the tattoos on his face and the murderous glint in his eye, but yeesh the dialogue was pretty terrible in that particular subplot. And are teenage girls really so shrieky and crazed? That felt a little on-the-nose. High school is hell, but I don't think popular girls immediately assault the new kid like that...

American Horror Story is so far a complete mess. But it's a mess that's inherently intriguing, one that manages to pull together everything that is both great and horrible about Ryan Murphy. There's the sassy dialogue of Popular, the psychosexual campiness of Nip/Tuck and the 'throw everything into the pot' annoyance of Glee. I'm in it for the long haul, though. It's wacko but I already think I love it.


- Can we address the fact that distractingly-accented vampire slayer Bianca Lawson has been playing a high school student since 1993? Girl's lookin' fiiiine.

- I loved that Vulture described this show as 'True Blood Opening Credits: The Series'. Speaking of credits, the main titles were pretty impressive, but I adored the closing credits more, with the random intercutting of shots from the pilot. Never seen that done before.

- Nothing screams horror like a whimsical 1950's pop song playing over scenes of fear and carnage.

- If you hadn't already realized this was a Ryan Murphy cable show, I'm sure everybody had a lightbulb moment right around the time Dylan McDermott began walking around naked, or weepily masturbating. I don't even think Julian McMahon showed this much buttage in the first Nip/Tuck episode...

Are You There, Campiness? It's Me, Constance

Constance: Are those real diamonds? And not that home shopping shit?

Constance: I came out here to be a movie star, did the screen tests and everything. But nudity was the big deal then. The morals were just beginning to collapse and I wasn't about to have my green pasture flashed seventy feet high for every man, woman and child to see. So I put that little butterfly of a dream and put it in a little jar on the shelf. And soon after came the mongoloid, and of course I couldn't work after that.

Constance: Jesus H. Christ, you almost gave me a heart attack!

Constance: Why is it always the old whore who acts the part of a moralistic prude?

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.


  1. Welcome to the site, maxpower03! This is a terrific review. The thing about the show being the True Blood credits is wonderful. (They're my favorite credits.)

  2. Love the review! And now I'm not at all ashamed to admit I loved the show! I totally missed Kendra the Vampire Slayer tho...I'll keep an eye out for her. I was eating dinner while watching this and when Constance referred to her daughter as "the mongoloid" I think I spit my food out. I'm sure it's offensive somehwhere but coming out of her mouth it was hysterical.

  3. I wasn't expecting much from the Pilot. I haven't seen Nip/Tuck, but my experience of Glee is that it's fine as long as it doesn't touch on heavy themes. Death and ghosts are heavy themes. But I really enjoyed the energy of the show, and thought they handled the horror well. I think you're right: if they tip too far towards absurdity, it's going to be a case of style over substance, and the show will ultimately fail. But if they focus more on Connie Britton's character, I think they could be onto a winner. Her character, along with Constance and Violet, are the strongest characters in the show. They just need to make the male characters less forgettable. (By means other than flashing their arses.)

  4. Agreed on just about everything.

    This pilot is definitely polarizing.

    Surprisingly the horror aspects are not what drew me in so much as the family aspect. Not surprising, actually, I'm a sucker for drama. But yeah, though the Columbine kid, sexier Shining hag, creepy down syndrome girl, or gimp sex were good candy, that argument between the parents really sold me on this. Good acting always gets me too.

    The horny gimp and Jessica Lange (times 100) were my favorite enigmatic supernatural parts. And Denis O'Hare is in my cool book after True Blood and Milk.

    My only complaint is that everyone is way too relaxed about every messed up thing that happens. Sad burn victim tells me the house has had more than one set of dead residents? Time to to go home. That weird old maid is mounting my formerly adulterous father? Time to go to school. My normally articulate intellectual husband appears out of nowhere in the bondage suit as still and silent as Michael Myers? Time to have sex. There's difficulty communicating then there's this.

    I always say the crazier the better regarding TV shows. This one is really testing that statement. Will see where this is going.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everybody. The general consensus does appear to be that Jessica Lange is walking away with the show. But I love Connie Britton, too, and she has the most interesting 'normal' character so far.

    And, yeah, Kendra was one of the bitchy high school girl's friends. I'm not sure if she had any lines, though, so she's probably coming back at some point.


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