Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

American Horror Story: Get Out Of The F@&%!$g House, You Morons

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Quick Reaction: FX’s American Horror Story is an utter train wreck of a show and series creator Ryan Murphy is likely laughing at you for making it a hit.

(Note: This review was based on American Horror Story’s first three episodes, “Pilot,” “Home Invasion,” and “Murder House.”)

Ryan Murphy (along with longtime writing partner Brad Falchuk) might be television’s most insufferable showrunner. His shows have demonstrated the propensity over the years to not only fall off the rails but to fall off the rails in spectacular fashion. His first effort (back in the days of The WB) was the teen soap Popular, a show that had its moments to be sure, before devolving rather quickly into nonsense. Next came Nip/Tuck, which became one of the fledgling FX network’s flagship series and was a show whose cable setting allowed Murphy to indulge in some of his baser instincts [1]. I mean, for fuck’s sake, one prominent plotline featured a male rapist who was born without a penis. I repeat: Born. Without. A. Penis. Somehow, this bit of unpleasantness was forgiven with mainstream TV audiences once he created Glee, with Murphy somehow becoming America’s darling in the process. Largely on the cachet of his Glee success, he landed a deal with FX (again) in February 2011 and American Horror Story was born. And oh… what a crazy goddamn baby this one turned out to be.

[1] Namely, showing Julian McMahon’s ass. Repeatedly.

For those unfamiliar with AHS: Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) play Ben and Vivian Harmon, Boston transplants who attempt to make a new life in Los Angeles with their moody teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), in tow as a response to no small amount of turmoil within their marriage (he cheated and she miscarried). They purchase an old mansion in LA – the type that only exists in television shows – for a steal since it was the site of a grisly murder/suicide and thus, presumably, no one else wants it. After moving in, their lives begin to go to shit and unexplainable [2] things start happening. Ben, as a therapist, runs his practice out of his home and begins seeing a troubled teenager named Tate (Evan Peters, Invasion) who seems to have some kind of strange connection to the house. Also, Jessica Lange turns up as Constance, a neighbor who leaves big chomping teeth marks on the scenery every time she appears on screen, and Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) plays Moira, a housekeeper who seems to be yet another character with a mysterious tie to the house.

[2] Read: batshit crazy.

Really, I could try to explain more of the plot to you but it would be a futile pursuit. In the history of train-wrecky shows, AHS  might be the most train-wreckiest. This makes it watchable to a point – mainly because it’s fun to tear shows like this apart – but it’s still a gigantic eyesore of a television series. For one, there are so many characters in this series that exist only on television shows. Example #1: Denis O’Hare’s Larry Harvey, a badly burned former resident of the home who alternately warns Ben about the house, while extorting him at the same time. He may be an apparition that only Ben can see. Who can be sure with this show? The third episode, “Murder House,” ends with Harvey bashing Ben’s mistress [3] in the face with a shovel, killing her. Because, why not? Lange, a talented actress in the past, is playing the overacting wannabe star who’s bitter from having to care for her daughter Addy, a young woman with Down syndrome who, in one of the show’s most cringeworthy elements, seems to exist only to be “creepy.” Apparently to Murphy, disabled people are scary. In 2011, that’s more than a little offensive. Actually, that’s a lot offensive and Murphy should know better. From a technical standpoint, the camerawork and music attempt to create a horror atmosphere and, while they do succeed at times, more often than not it comes off as showy and as AHS trying too hard. The show’s casting doesn’t fare much better.

[3] Who’s just shown up in LA, pregnant, and telling Ben that she’s moving there and that he’s going to need to provide for the baby. Naturally, like mistresses are wont to do.

When casting AHS, Murphy and his team must have decided that nuanced acting (Britton excepted), need not apply here. The histrionics that pockmarked both the pilot and the later seasons of Nip/Tuck are present in spades. I’ve already hit on Lange’s shortcomings but as the ostensible lead, McDermott’s character is such a douchebag that it’s tough to find any reason why the audience should feel for him. He cheated on his wife after she had a miscarriage, packed his family up and moved them across the country into a haunted house, all the while being one of the most self-involved characters currently on television. He’s the kind of asshole that you watch and root for death to befall him. After Vivien becomes pregnant in the pilot [4], Ben tells her, “This baby is why we moved here. It’s our salvation.” While in the hands of a better actor, a cheeseball line like that could potentially be salvaged, here it just proves that McDermott is exposed and out of his element. Farmiga, in her second role ever, does show potential as the daughter who begins to appreciate what the house has to offer but, mostly, I just feel sorry that Britton was somehow dragged into this mess. After spending the last five years working on what I consider my favorite television series of all-time, Friday Night Lights, she’s now subjected to Murphy’s histrionic fever dreams and is lowered to being unwittingly raped and impregnated by some mysterious being in a gimp outfit [5]. The last half-decade of her career was spent creating the most realistic portrayal of a marriage that’s been seen on television, maybe ever, with Kyle Chandler and now she’s wasting away alongside McDermott. And McDermott is most certainly no Kyle Chandler. None of this even begins to answer the question central on anyone who watches this show’s minds: Why in holy hell would anyone stay in this house? I mean, other than that Murphy and FX want to stretch this out as a series. After largely avoiding the topic for the first two episodes, in “Murder House” Murphy and his writing team go the exact opposite route and throw any and every reason at the audience, telling them, “Hey… assholes! Pick one!” They can’t leave because Ben tells Vivien that all of their money is tied up in the house and The Economy [6] won’t allow them to! Vivien experiences pregnancy complications that mysteriously disappear once she’s back in the house! Violet has grown so attached to the house that she threatens to run away and never be seen from again if she’s forced to move! All in the space of a single episode. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the storytelling, does it?

[4] Don’t ask for specifics. Just… don’t.
[5] Those would be the specifics. Unfortunately.
[6] Capitalized because it’s seemingly the villain on every television show this season.

Through all of the missteps in casting, storytelling, and presentation, the voice that shines through is unmistakably that of Murphy. You can almost make up a game called Ryan Murphy Show Bingo throughout because it quickly becomes obvious that the success of Glee and the cable setting for AHS have only served to add up to Murphy at his worst. McDermott walking around bare-assed and shirtless on multiple occasions? Murphy’d! Gimp outfit hanging in the attic? Murphy’d! McDermott jerking off and crying at the same time, while spotting the grotesquely burned Harvey hanging out in his lawn for the first time? [6] Murphy’d! AHS is like the manifestation of every wet dream that Ryan Murphy has ever had, and FX has chosen for some inexplicable reason to present it to their audience. Lucky us. It almost feels like a put-on, like this can’t be an actual show that an actual for real network has willingly put on the air. Ultimately, AHS seems like the biggest joke that Ryan Murphy has ever pulled on his audience. He’s sitting back, saying, “Look what I can make you fools watch.” And we have, because not only did it end up as the #1 series premiere in FX’s history, but it’s already been renewed for a second season. That sound you hear is Murphy, laughing at you while he makes his way to the bank. Again.

[6] Yeah… I’m pretty sure I actually just typed that. And that it actually happened in this show.

Random Observations:

God bless Connie Britton. She’s doing her best to rise above the garbage that she’s surrounded by and while she’s one of television’s best actresses, she can only do so much.

Why, in God’s name, is Alby from Big Love sewing bat’s wings on a pig in one of these three episodes?

McDermott didn’t actually build a gazebo in one day at the end of “Murder House,” right?

More than anything, AHS borrows liberally from The Shining. The house has special powers that makes its inhabitants go slowly mad. Creepy twins. Ghosts. O’Hare seems to be playing the part of the bartender from the film. Let’s hope there are no creepy naked old ladies later on but, knowing Murphy, I wouldn’t put it past him.

Lange: “My womb is cursed.” Wonderful.

Where To Watch: FX | Wednesday Nights | 10:00 ET
Where To Catch Up: On Demand | Hulu | FX.com
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Written by jeremylikestv

November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm

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