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October 30, 2014

Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 4th 2011 2:00PM
You've probably heard some buzz about 'American Horror Story' (10PM ET Wednesday, FX), the new drama from 'Glee's' Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. That's not surprising; if there's one thing Murphy is good at, it's creating shocking moments that the media likes to gab about.

The thing is, that may be the only things he's good at anymore. It's not that 'American Horror Story' is 100 percent awful, though at times it veers dangerously close to that. But longtime Murphy watchers know that it's only a matter of time before the few promising elements are clobbered to death by the dumb moves his shows inevitably pull.

If you do get pulled in by the show's wildly uneven premiere, trust me, in time, you are bound to be disappointed. Let me count the ways:

1. Even more than usual, the characters are place-holders, caricatures or grab-bags of wacky traits.

Of course you expect a Murphy project to be full of stylized melodrama and overwrought weirdness, but 'AHS' doesn't appear to be very interested in developing the people at the center of the insanity. The members of the troubled Harmon family, who arrive in L.A. after a series of personal setbacks back in Boston, don't particularly resemble real people and often don't react to the bizarre events that happen to them in ways recognizably human characters would react. It will come as no surprise to 'Glee' viewers that 'AHS' invents paper-thin reasons for all of that to be OK or simply ignores inconsistencies.

In any event, after watching the first three episodes of 'AHS,' I can't tell you much about the psychology or motivations of any of the Harmons or the strange people in their orbit. I can tell you that Jessica Lange is chewing up the scenery as Constance, their Southern-belle neighbor; the Harmon's teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is sullen and generally unpleasant; psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is generally robotic and bland; and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) is whatever the writers need her to be at any given moment (she ranges from mean to wounded to, well, undefined).

Don't let the moody atmosphere fool you; it's merely a gloss on a lumpy, slapdash drama about relatively boring people, and when characters are trading wooden dialogue ("You need to pay for what you've done!" "Oh, I do, every day"), it's hard to get fully invested in any of it.

For psychologically driven horror to work (and that's what 'AHS' should be aiming for if it wants to draw viewers back every week), the show has to be deeply interested in the motivations and emotions of the people involved. But Murphy and Falchuk appear most interested in creating a series of scenes and moments that refer to better-constructed thrillers and scarefests, and the characters don't appear to interest them much, which is a shame, given the caliber of the cast.

2. The mythology of this show, such as it is, will fall apart before it even gets fully developed.

All right, so 'AHS' doesn't seem to be all that interested in making the emotional lives or the relationships of the Harmons seem complex or real. That might be OK if it the emerging backstory about their freaky house and its various inhabitants made any sense and was building toward compelling revelations. But we all know how interested Ryan Murphy is things like consistency, follow-through and thoroughness.

I'll give you a minute to stop laughing.

I'm guessing more thought went into the choice of lighting fixtures for the Harmon house than will ever go into the construction of the show's overall narrative. As is the case in 'Glee,' characters here forget what they want or what they've done to each other whenever it's convenient for the show: continuity schmontinuity. The hints about the house and its history have some interesting elements -- does the house amplify the darkness in each person, or does it have a mind of its own? -- but the storytelling here appears to follow the 'Glee' model, i.e., "throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks."

Remember the Carver story line on Murphy's first big hit, 'Nip/Tuck'? That's a model of economical and thoughtfully constructed storytelling compared to the opening hours of 'AHS.'

3. Are you tired of Ryan Murphy's previous obsessions? Well, here they all are again.

The show revisits all the writer/director's usual preoccupations: Outsiders, false appearances, decay, blood, unhappiness, tortured adolescence, shrieky women, fertility and doctors who are up to no good. What does 'AHS' add to those topics, aside from some riffs on everything from 'Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte' to 'Rosemary's Baby'? Not a whole lot. What I've gathered from three episodes of 'AHS' is that perfect suburban facades often hide rot, lies and barely repressed anger. Every resentful high school sophomore in America thanks Murphy and Falchuk for re-stating that revelatory fact.

In any case, there's a deja vu quality to most of the show's weirder moments; at times, 'AHS' becomes a game of "Spot the Reference." Haven't we seen that pleather-clad dude before in 'Pulp Fiction'? Haven't we seen the crazy-cakes Southern belle in dozens of B-grade melodramas? Haven't we seen the overwrought female servant in 'Rebecca' and a hundred lesser movies? And having the talented Denis O'Hare trot around as a refugee from 'Twin Peaks' or 'Carnivale' doesn't add anything to the proceedings. I could go on, but you get the idea.

4. There is no real thematic progression or character development. Generally speaking, things just randomly happen.

Having people from multiple timelines interact (or appear to) relieves the writers of the burden of using boring old storytelling tools like cause and effect. Why do the past and present interact? What do those interactions say about the house or the lives of the people in it? "Something. Whatever. Shut up." That appear to be the answer that 'AHS' is interested in giving us.

But the biggest problem with stakes that randomly materialize and then disappear is that the lack of consequences and forward progress make everything quite tedious. What's more boring than watching a series of scenes that aren't all that related and characters whose lives don't accrue weight or complexity as they progress? But if you like narratives in which people parachute in and out of the story in order to say mildly ominous things to each other, this should be your cup of tea.

5. It's freaky and it will get your attention. But 'AHS' is not really all that scary.

Eh, occasionally 'AHS' is effective as a horror show, but as a whole? Not really. After a while, I began to view 'AHS' as a comedy -- it's so transparent in its desire to shock that you can usually see the big scares coming a mile away (what did the teenagers think would happen when they went down to the super-creepy basement?). It's hard not to giggle a little when the show goes for the vibe of a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph or a Nine Inch Nails video and ends up coming off as a unintentionally campy Syfy movie.

Way back in the day, when 'Nip/Tuck' was still a pretty good character drama, Murphy's shocks were part of an effort to get the viewer to understand the relationships and emotional states of his characters. But that era is long gone, as is the desire to inflict psychological and physical wounds for compelling purposes. One of the biggest problems with 'AHS' is that the violence seems to exist for its own sake. It's not there to illuminate anything; people are repeatedly attacked, violated and hurt... just because. That's disturbing in all the wrong ways.

Sometimes overheated Gothic melodrama can be fun (witness the first two seasons of 'True Blood'). But 'AHS' clearly wants to be seen as saying something about the state of the American family or the decay of the American dream. But it doesn't really have anything interesting to say on those fronts, it doesn't work as a character drama and it's tiresome more often than it's freakily scary. And if Murphy's penchant for self-indulgence is so lavishly indulged in the first few hours of 'AHS,' what awaits us down the road?

Do let me know. I'm stepping off this train wreck now.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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25 Comments

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Chunk Basker

This show Blows hard. I watched 4 episodes to give it a chance and really... Bad acting, bad writing was just garbage. I hate how shows like this take off while folks still know nothing that is Hannibal. Thats a real show. This piece is just glittered up bullshit right on your doorstep. Almost as bad as Walking Dead.

March 25 2014 at 5:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy Griffith

what is it with you lady? sounds like sour grapes...so, let's see..it is now "down the road"...SAG and Golden Globe nommies for the show and the exquisite Jessica Lange...what could be next? Oh, I don't know...perhaps Emmy noms???

December 15 2011 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Schweet Dee

Ugh. You are such a cynical bore. Yeah, Glee sucks, I agree but that doesn't mean AMS does. I and my friends really dig it. It's definitely a nice change of pace in a world of Kardashians, Dancing with "Stars" or your favorite, Glee.

November 02 2011 at 1:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Me

I watched the first episode this evening and I simply could not bring myself to view #2 and beyond. It was just weird, and not in a good way. I am not shy when it comes to shocking horror, and *weird* can be good, but this show really rubbed me the wrong way and it had everything to do with that lack of character substance. The main characters were paper thin, I felt nothing for them. They came off as static and one dimensional. It is hard to be patient with a plot as campy as this one is when I feel nothing for the protagonists. HELL, the antagonists seem to be nothing more than pawns created for shock. Yawn.

Come on! Give me something as excellent as "The Walking Dead". You can pay tribute to the horror genre and still have give the audience excellent and thoughtful drama.

October 13 2011 at 2:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
june_bug6

You base a lot of your critiquing off Murphy's current other show Glee but you're either forgetting, or are unaware of his full body of work which also includes acclaimed series Nip/Tuck. Glee is a completely different beast and I think the comparisons to his style there and his style in AHS are better left alone.

October 12 2011 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to june_bug6's comment
june_bug6

Ah, I stand corrected....you mentioned it once. Briefly.

October 12 2011 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rick

Does anyone find this sentence as laughable as I do?

"But we all know how interested Ryan Murphy is things like consistency, follow-through and thoroughness"

Next time you are going to criticize someone for their thoroughness, maybe you should actual follow through and edit your piece :)

The jadedness towards this show comes through in spades in your review.

October 09 2011 at 10:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rick's comment
bemassey120

Actually. The next time she is going to criticize someone for their thoroughness maybe she should actualLY follow through and edit her piece.

Pot meet kettle, eh?

November 11 2011 at 10:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dmoongo

I agree 100% with #4. A jerky, rapid scene-changing mess. I didn't care in the least for any of the characters. Get them all together in the house, then set it afire. Episode one was enough for me. Won't watch again.

October 08 2011 at 2:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sarge

"what did the teenagers think would happen....?"

Are... Are you f*cking kidding me? This is a joke right? One of your criticisms for this show is that the writing is unbelievable because two teenagers, who have no reason whatsoever to believe in the supernatural and who have never seen anything bizarre happen beyond that which needs no rational explanation, were not aware that they would be attacked by a demonic monkey ghost thing in the basement? Seriously?

Look, I don't watch "Glee" and I'm not going to say that AHS is a great show, but your hate-on for this Murphy fella has struck you blind and dumb. All of your critiques about this show (except for your bitch about the acting which is WAY off base) can be summed up with "This is what Ryan Murphy did on previous shows, therefore it is what he will do on this show." Maybe you're right, maybe you're not, but you clearly did not give this show a shot. You went into the first episode knowing that it was a Murphy creation and you let that bias cloud your judgement. If you cannot give a show an honest shake, then you have no business being a critic.

October 06 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sarge's comment
Craig Ranapia

Hey, Sarge, you do realise screeners of the first three episodes went out? I'd respectfully suggest that if a show hasn't really impressed that far in, odds are it's not going to. I'd also note that Mo gave the 'Glee' pilot a positive (but qualified) review and IIRC did the same with the first season of 'Nip/Tuck'. Hardly someone who has some "haterz gonna hate" vendetta against Murphy.

October 07 2011 at 5:16 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
katie71483

NOOO! I was hoping it would be good because I love Connie Britton so... Maybe I'll just watch Friday Night Lights (again) while it's on instead...

October 05 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
USA J

Ryan Murphy must use his mostly unwatchable television creations as personal therapy for his tortured life as a gay teen and now adult . It's never fun watching someone else work through their issues on television each week. My own are enough to deal with and I don't like sharing them with the masses, thank you very much. Spot on, Mo. Ryan Murphy is so overrated.

October 05 2011 at 5:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to USA J's comment
Craig Ranapia

Wait a moment, USA J - what the hell does being Ryan Murphy being gay have to do with (IMO) the borderline misogyny of the show under review? Personally, I don't sleep with women but that doesn't mean I have any desire to write fiction in which women are relentlessly degraded and abused. Plenty of straight men do.

October 07 2011 at 5:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Wait a moment, USA J - what the hell does being Ryan Murphy being gay have to do with (IMO) the borderline misogyny of the show under review? Personally, I don't sleep with women but that doesn't mean I have any desire to write fiction in which women are relentlessly degraded and abused. Plenty of straight men do.

October 07 2011 at 5:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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