TV Review: American Horror Story

American Horror Story (created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk)
Starring Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare, Jessica Lange,  Frances Conroy, Jamie Brewer

Horror is tricky genre to tackle on television. It traditionally ends up in the anthology format and the few occasions it hasn’t been an anthology it hasn’t stayed pure horror, typically becoming a drama with a horror veneer (Dark Shadows, The Walking Dead). The minds behind Glee and Nip/Tuck have decided to create a new horror serial that actually cements its legs firmly in the tropes of the genre. I have to admit, during the promotions of the show during the late summer I wasn’t really sold. However, after viewing the opening five minutes of the pilot I was hooked. Murphy and Falchuk have managed to create an ongoing series that actually gets what makes horror so horrific.

Viven Harmon is moving out West with her husband and angsty teenaged daughter. She recently caught her husband cheating, and to enact a fresh start they uprooted from the East Coast and bought a 1920s era house sight unseen. When the arrive, they learn the house has a history of tragedy, most unsettling being the father who set the place ablaze to kill himself and his family. Very quickly things get weird (strange paintings hidden by wallpaper, a sinister mentally disabled woman, and Jessica Lange as the worst neighbor ever). Ben, the patriarch, restarts his psychiatric practice in the house and begins working with a troubled and obstinate teenage boy, Tate. There’s much more weirdness and the creators understand that great horror comes from a lot of work up front to set the tone. By the time the pilot reaches its terrifying climax you’ll be left shaken and contemplating the seeming doom of this family in a house which seems to swallow up its inhabitants.

Ryan Murphy has stated in interviews that the writing room focuses much less on hashing out detailed character arcs and act breaks, and more on discussing what situations have evoked terror and fear in them throughout their life. The aforementioned climactic scene uses a violent strobe light to create moments of darkness where brutal acts go unseen. In the second episode, the audience is tormented with the near universal fear of an intruder entering your home while you are helpless to stop them. As with Glee, there is a snarky sense of humor and Jessica Lange is a sort of black comedy Sue Sylvester. So far, the creators have shown a good ability to balance the humor and the horror. While there are moments that are hilarious, the moments when things get serious are truly horrific.

This is probably the new series of the fall season that has me the most hooked. It promises to have lots of mystery and eventual reveals. It also has shown it isn’t afraid to ramp the level of horror on the small screen, which is refreshing. The only thing that leaves me wondering is how the show can survive beyond a single season, without suffering from the same criticisms as shows like Lost or Heroes.

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