Jan 5, 2012

[TV] American Horror Story: Season 1 (Murder House)

In the course of writing these reviews, I constantly go back to the fact that I don't handle the horror genre too well. So you'd think this show would be a totally bad idea for me, but then there's something about TV horror that helps keep things reined in within my tolerance level. Plus it's TV, so it can't be all that bad, right?

Of course American Horror Story is from the same guy who brought us Glee and Nip/Tuck, so that's a weird place to come from in terms of something with "horror" actually in the title of the show. But the trailers actually showed a bit of promise and the early buzz seemed generally positive (albeit cautiously) as well.

So my partner and I have the show a go and while it seemed like yet another confused mess at first, over time the story oddly began to grow on us. While I won't go as far as it being a totally great show that I'd recommend to most of my friends, but the show does have its odd appeal that helps it work.

But I'm not sure if I could say that this is actually a "horror" TV show though.

American Horror Story is presented as a horror drama series, although I felt it's really just a drama with a bit of a supernatural twist. It was created by the team of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk for FX.

The show centers around the Harmon family as they make a big move from Boston to Los Angeles. The father, Ben (Dylan McDermott) is a psychiatrist who had an affair and thus is still in a rough patch with his wife Vivien (Connie Britton). And after Vivien's has a stillborn, they all device to move to Los Angeles together with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). They invest the bulk of their savings into an old house that was a bit of a deal in the hopes of renovating it and either making it a permanent home or eventually flipping it to new owners. But it is revealed that the last owners of the house died in a murder-suicide.

That's when things begin to get stranger. You can start with the overly friendly neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange) and her down syndrome daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer). And as if Constance's tendency to "borrow" things and Addie's uncanny ability to break into their house wasn't enough, there's Moira (Frances Conroy / Alexandria Breckenridge), the housekeeper who just automatically comes with the house somehow. But Moira sometimes appear as an elderly woman (like when talking to Vivien) and yet young and extremely seductive at other times (like when flirting with Ben). And then there's Tate (Even Peters) who is one of Ben's newest patients at this location and quickly forms a bond with young Violet.

At first the show felt very confused given the signature Murphy-Falchuk belief that more and more plot threads thrown at the audience equals a rich and complex story. And while it does feel like a bit of a struggle to get through the first few episodes while trying to sort through the various time periods of the house's history in time the pieces begin to fall into place and things start to make a wee bit more sense.

Jessica Lange on the red carpet at the 62nd An...
Image via Wikipedia
Initially, you can rely on the combined acting prowess of Jessica Lange and Frances Confroy) to keep you afloat. As confusing as some of the writing (and direction) tends to get, these two women remain to be remarkable actresses who truly captivate in terms of how they bring their characters to life. Plus it helps that they are some of the more complex and interesting characters in the show and in the end it almost feels like Jessica Lange is really meant to be the lead actress if she isn't already considered such. The woman just thrives in these drama-rich environments.

Beyond his impressive physique, Dylan McDermott isn't all that compelling in the show. Then again, he only seems to know how to act in just one manner, which is the same as he acted back in The Practice. Britton and wasn't all that great either, although her character does gain more focus as the show progresses. And let's not get started on Farmiga - it's hard to comment on whether she did a really good job in her role, which made for her to be a very annoying teenager.

The show also features an interesting set of guest stars, including Zachary Quinto as a prior gay resident of the house even Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family fame. On the whole, there's a lot about the show's sensibilities that does try to show appreciation for the horror genre including the music, the shot angles and some of the pacing. And of course there's that ever classic notion of why the heck these people just don't move out of the house despite everything else going against them.

Is it worth trudging through all the way to the end to enjoy the show? That's really up to you, I suppose. If you enjoy this kind of discombobulated narrative with a few gotcha moments here and there. But don't expect to get totally scared in that full horror sense. I feel shows like The Walking Dead did a better job of orchestrating those shock / thriller moments.

American Horror Story is certainly an interesting addition to the TV world and a show that may go further in its second season. Or it can totally train wreck in the end and we'll all be feeling that sense of "I told you so" considering the show's creators. Still, I'm rating this a generous 3.5 curious ghost residents of the house out of a possible 5.

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