Freak or Genius?
Ryan Murphy’s ‘American Horror Story’ Is the Craziest Show on TV
Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez examine FX’s love-it-or-loathe-it scarefest, ‘American Horror Story.’
Has the backlash against the backlash to American Horror Story begun?
Few television shows are contested as hotly as FX’s haunted-house drama, from creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, which has wormed its way into numerous online debates, with viewers divided about whether they love it, loathe it, or love to hate it. (Even some of those who despise it, however, find that they can’t stop watching it.)
Here’s the plot boiled down: after suffering a brutal stillbirth, Vivien Harmon (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton) discovers her psychiatrist husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott), in bed with one of his students. The troubled couple—and their equally troubled teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga)—decamp to Los Angeles, where they purchase a Victorian house that was the site of numerous grisly murders and which is as deeply haunted as they are. Scariness, in the form of ghostly maids, baby monsters, murderous burn victims, kinky phantoms in bondage wear, and deranged Southern belles, ensues.
Critics have been just as split as audiences on the show, which has already been renewed for a second season. AOLtv’s Mo Ryan called the show a “train wreck,” writing that American Horror Story is merely “a gloss on a lumpy, slapdash drama about relatively boring people.” The Boston Herald’s Mark Perigard, meanwhile, wrote, “I loved the pilot, mostly because I could never predict where the story was going, a rarity in prime-time TV.” The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez are also at odds about the show and teamed up to discuss the show’s merits and failings. (WARNING: The conversation below contains plot points from the show’s fifth episode, “Halloween, Part 2.” If you have yet to watch that episode, read at your own peril.)
He Said: The pilot for American Horror Story may just be the craziest thing ever to air on television. The first episode is disturbing on so many levels, but most of all the inchoate and haphazard way Murphy and Falchuk plotted it, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (though that discussion of the “pasta arm” came later) to deliver an hour that was short on true scares but which relished trying to scare you with cheap camera tricks (jump cuts, unexpected and fragmented zooms). In just the first episode, we get a mad burn victim, murdered twins, a Down syndrome girl with a connection to the supernatural, a maid who appears at times old and young, a disturbed and potentially violent teen, a girl who cuts herself, the thing in the basement, an unexplained pregnancy, dead babies in jars, and the Rubber Man. (Aside: it’s only now that I’m seeing some evidence of self-editing. An albino who appeared in the house in the original pilot was cut from the broadcast version.) The pilot is so jumbled and chaotically full of weirdness that there’s no baseline for normalcy. Even the Harmons are deeply disturbed and unlikable. What we get is a menagerie of grotesques, which seems to be a Ryan Murphy staple. Despite my love for Connie Britton, I can’t help but root for the house.
She Said: So, so crazy, but what do you have against crazy? We could all use a little crazy in our lives. At the end of the first hour, I was perturbed, disturbed, entertained, and intrigued. I had no idea what I had just watched. I wasn’t screaming, “I love this!” but I did like it and I was really curious about what it all could possibly mean. Come on, I saw Connie Britton’s Vivien having sex with a rubber man. Everyone could use a little Rubber Man in their lives, too. I went into this show expecting a certain degree of crazy. You did watch Nip/Tuck, didn’t you? (I adored that show for a long time!). I got more crazy than Tiger Blood crazy but, for me, that was a good thing.
He Said: I’m all for unpredictability, but I want to know that this story is going somewhere and that there’s something resembling a plan. I feel at times as though the show is playing fast and loose with the plot because the writers are making it up as they go along and that leads to trouble down the line. Plus, the characters are just so damn unsympathetic.
She Said: But you expect that much from a first episode of a series? To me, the pilot was all about setting this up as an insane mystery with tons of horror elements. I didn’t expect a road map of any kind. It’s true that by the end of the first hour you really had no idea where they might going, but that was interesting to me. It wasn’t the norm on TV. Things didn’t add up but that appealed to me. If that was still the case now, that would be a problem.
He Said: Wait, you think things are adding up now? Granted, I love Jessica Lange’s scenery chewing and I actually felt the first glimmer of emotion when Constance was dragging her daughter’s dying body through the street.
She Said: Everything about Constance is great. When she brought over the cupcakes, she scared me to death. When she found out her husband was cheating on her, I felt her devastation. When Addy (Jamie Brewer) dies, you just feel her world crashing down. All those scenes were fantastic. But the one scene that stands out the most for me is when she was making Addy look pretty in the morgue. Wow, Jessica. Wow.
He Said: Yes, I love Lange and I think she’s giving a warts-and-all performance—particularly in that morgue scene—that will likely net her some awards nominations, but the show is just as much a mess as before. Way too much going on, way too much weirdness, and perhaps the worst casting ever on a TV show with McDermott. Adding up? Nope.
She Said: I most certainly think things are not only adding up, but also they are looking up! In the second episode, CRAZY was still in charge. People kept appearing and the story wasn’t formulating yet for me. It was all very weird. But then in the third episode, when we learned Constance’s backstory and about the Murder House, and Vivien started talking about selling the house, something changed for me. I started to see that there was some reason behind all the madness. The two-part Halloween episodes solidified that. It’s a ghost story! And I love that. More important, when Constance’s daughter died, I cared. I was sad. That means I’ve gone from being intrigued to being involved. I think it’s working.
He Said: And McDermott? Is he working for you?
She Said: I agree that Dylan McDermott is not the right fit. Connie Britton deserves someone who can match her complexity. I have often thought while watching—does she want to go back to Dillon, Texas? But not because I don’t think the show is worthy of her. I just think Vivien could use a little Coach Taylor in her life. I don’t buy that they’ve ever been in love. But besides that, I am really loving the show now.
He Said: I’m glad we both hate masturbating-and-crying Ben, and I’ve acknowledged that Addy’s death carried emotion! But what about the fact that much of the show doesn’t make sense? There’s a lack of logic to it that colors much of Murphy’s work, particularly as they get on in years. Vivien is being terrorized by the ghost of Hayden (Kate Mara), while Larry (Denis O’Hare) runs around setting fires and Ben is tied up in the basement… but Violet seems to not hear her mother screaming and instead skips out to confront the kids following her and Tate? Ben designs and builds a gazebo in an afternoon? After a nurse passes out while looking at Vivien’s ultrasound, Ben and Viv just up and leave the hospital, with nary a concern?! And I’m troubled that there’s a weird pro-life undercurrent here, with drug-addled Dr. Montgomery (Matt Ross) performing abortions in an episode titled “Murder House.”
She Said: Jace, their daughter was on the verge of another home invasion at the hands of Cuckoo Disfigured Larry. Of course, they couldn’t pay attention to the nurse on the floor! I know, the show doesn’t make perfect sense yet, but it’s a mystery. If it did, the season would be over. We now know most of these folks are ghosts and I do find their backstories really crazy-fun-interesting. I also think it’s interesting how some people see some ghosts but others don’t. Why is that? I don’t know yet but I’m not mad about it. If this were a two-hour movie in the theater, you wouldn’t be screaming in the first 30 minutes because you don’t get it all. This is the same—just a longer process. Could it be a disaster in Season 3 or 4? Sure. But I’m not there yet. I don’t care about that now. I only care that every week a few more things make sense in the puzzle.
He Said: But that doesn’t explain the gazebo! In all seriousness, I get that it’s a mystery. I’m just not entirely sure what that mystery is: why is the house doing this? Who is the Rubber Man? What is the thing in the basement? (It’s clearly the animated spirit of Montgomery’s dead-baby experiment.) Yes, we’re getting backstory on Moira (Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge), Constance, Tate (Evan Peters), and the others, but it seems like every week just adds in new ghosts, elements, instead of leading us down a distinct path. It’s all very jumbled to me. Do I get why people like it? Sure, genre programming such as this typically performs well, but I don’t see AHS doing anything innovative, merely repurposing pieces from preexisting horror films like Rosemary’s Baby. The Shining, The Others, etc. Donald Barthelme once said, “The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century,” and that’s true of the 21st as well. This is collage, a pastiche of horror tropes, but so far it hasn’t really given us anything that’s as novel or jolting as those originals.
She Said: I think it’s new in that we haven’t seen this on TV before. So if it’s re-purposing elements of horror films that were beloved, paying homage to them in a way, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that if it all makes sense in the end and is a well-told story. All of those questions you asked are part of the mystery. The fact that we all want to know more about Rubber Man, to me, means they’re doing something right. Can that go on forever? No. But we’re only five episodes in. What’s wrong with Murder House? I don’t know. I don’t want to live there but I do want to watch this story about it. Aren’t you intrigued by any of the ghosts?
He Said: Not particularly. They’re dead, whether they know it or not. They’re trapped. I think the Moira stuff is just too easy: she’s young and hot to trot! She’s old and cantankerous! There are ideas there—“men see what they want to see, women see a person’s soul”—but they’re locked up in a decrepit mess of a story that some new wallpaper can’t cover up. It’s hard to find their plights engaging when even the writers seem to despise all of them.
She Said: Despise them? Where did you get that from? I think the writers are having a ball with them. I love the teenage ghosts from this week’s episode. That was an interesting twist. Tate is a ghost and he’s also the murderous son of Constance? Sweet! What I like about the Moira story is how it mirrors what’s happening in Vivien and Ben’s marriage and how they perceive things. I also really like the wife of the abortion doctor (Lily Rabe). I want to see more of her.
He Said: Tate’s storyline sums up my feelings about the show as a whole: his sudden appearance on the scene, connection with Violet, helter-skelter freak-out in the basement, and then coming face to face with his 1990s murder spree victims all happened so quickly. I couldn’t feel sympathy for him because he was presented initially as so disturbed. That’s my feeling with all of the characters, even knife-wielding Vivien.
She Said: Tate creeped the hell out of me and he was getting on my nerves a bit, too. Now, suddenly, I am into Tate. He won me over with his murderous ways. I think I really felt sorry for him. We don’t know exactly why he killed those kids yet but I think peer pressure must have gotten to him. Puberty is not easy. I understand Tate.
He Said: It brought back the Columbine shooting in a very unsettling way and made Tate’s “visions” in the pilot clear-cut flashbacks to his crimes. Are some of these characters’ motivations unknowable? Absolutely, and perhaps that’s the point. But you’re sympathetic to his plight? You’re crazy.
She Said: About American Horror Story? Yes.
He Said: We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Just don’t make me wear the Rubber Man suit.
She Said: He’s cute, you know.
He Said: I’m sending you to the basement.
She Said: Tate will protect me.