I don’t really like American Horror Story thus far, but I’m certainly curious about it. I spend plenty of time thinking about it, and some of the mysteries at the show’s core have got me intrigued. I think part of that is just the fact that I like a show with a weird back-story, like this one, and my weird back-story vibe has been sadly empty since Lost went off the air. In fact, as I watched this second episode—which was an improvement over the pilot, but only just—I started thinking that a big reason for the show’s success is that it blends a lot of the stuff that made Lost successful, just in a new way.
1.) The main character is a location. I’m one of the biggest Lost apologists you’ll find, but even I’ll admit that though the characters on that show were a lot of fun, the main character we were all invested in was the Island. This isn’t so much about the mysteries of the place or anything like that. It’s about the sense that it was a place unlike any other on Earth, a supernatural place where just about anything could happen. The Island was God and Devil all rolled up into one, and the characters were powerless to stop the thrall it held over them.
On American Horror Story, the main character is the house. The problem here, I think, is that none of the other characters are nearly as interesting as that spooky structure at the story’s center. On Lost, you tuned in to see what the Island would be up to this week, but you also got a good dose of John Locke or Desmond Hume or Ben Linus, and you left satisfied that you’d hung out with some pretty compelling characters. Now, granted, American Horror Story is a young show, so the characters will have time to grow. But already, they’re talking about the house (which I should probably start capitalizing) like it’s an entity unto itself. The House is causing all of this, and it’s calling all of this story into being. It, too, is God and the Devil in this story, and though it skews toward the latter, it’s also enormously protective, as when it spares Vivien and Violet from the attacks of the home invaders.
2.) It’s a mash-up of roughly a century of a particular genre. On Lost, the center of the series was always an elaborate gumbo of elements from boys’ adventure tales, science fiction stories, and weird TV shows. But Lost felt like it had had time to simmer. It was easy to see the influence of, say, Twin Peaks or The Prisoner on the show, but it was also never overtly pointing at the homages it made and leaping up and down to get an extra-credit gold star from astute TV viewers. It was a show that was engaged with the history of American pulp tales, but it wasn’t going to stand up and continually say, “Hey, look at how much we like Ray Bradbury!”
The genre American Horror Story is aping is pretty obvious. But at the same time, the show hasn’t thoroughly internalized the genre it’s working within. Weird tonal shifts bump up right against each other, and in a jarring fashion, not a particularly satisfying one. For instance: I don’t mind Jessica Lange’s campy act as Constance, unlike some critics, and I kind of enjoy when she’s dancing about her house and cooking ipecac-laced cupcakes that will eventually bring down home invaders. But when she’s trying to get frisky with a much younger man and is interrupted by her mentally handicapped daughter—who’s got image issues—I’m not sure what it adds to the show to have her lock said daughter in a closet full of mirrors, so she can scream and scream. (This seems to me the most poorly judged scene in either episode.) The show is obviously trying to hint at Lange not being particularly on the side of the angels, but we had already gotten that. Instead, it reinforces the scene where Ben says that Addy is a “freak” and Vivien tells him not to call her that. This is evidently a show that wants to have its cake—goofy, campy moments mixed with big scares—and eat it too—by taking these characters dramatically seriously—but it has essentially no idea how to shift gears between those tones.
In addition, the many, many horror elements that get name-checked here aren’t blended into the background particularly skillfully. I like that the producers have done more than just comb through famous horror movies for their various scenarios—though the strings from Psycho show up when Maria is stabbed in the opening sequence for no real reason—and I like that they’re digging through the annals of other scary stuff from American history (like the story of Richard Speck). But the whole thing just feels so arch and self-congratulatory that it’s hard to get lost in the story. A good homage makes you smile with recognition at what you’re seeing; a bad one sets aside character development or building a cohesive plot or any of that and simply says, “Look what I’ve seen before!” And it’s okay to do that every once in a while, but it seems to be the only gear American Horror Story knows. The best, scariest moments, like Tate leading the invader through the home, then slicing her in two with an axe, feel like something you’ve seen before but also feel thoroughly disconnected from that. They’re sui generis, and the show doesn’t yet have enough of them.
3.) It often seems to be far more about its own mythology than anything else. This is probably why I spend more time thinking about this show than I really should. I am legitimately engaged with some of the questions the show seems to be asking, even as I couldn’t care less about the actual episode-by-episode reality of the show. Tonight hints at a “bad man” and at other potential avenues for storytelling, and it gives us the sense that Tate—who might be Constance’s “good child,” I think—is working with Constance and Moira on some sort of long con of the Harmons. Just about the only mode American Horror Story knows is uncovering its own back-story, and in the scenes where we get teases and hints of it, the show comes alive, as it plays games with us. The kinds of people who loved looking at Lost and trying to puzzle out what was happening would probably love this show. Other than that, it’s struggling to find a way to make this play episode-to-episode.
4.) The characters are all broad stereotypes, rather than terribly well-developed. This was something that was more true of Lost in the early going, but it was definitely something the show suffered from in that first season. The characters were all pulp archetypes, and the show took its sweet time in filling them in beyond “The Hero” or “The Pretty Girl” or “The Rogue.” On that show, like on this one, the cast was strong enough, for the most part, to fill in the blanks. (I’m not entirely sure what the wooden Dylan McDermott is doing here, but, hey, not everybody can be Connie Britton.) I like watching Vivien, because I like watching Connie Britton do stuff and she seems to be trying to find a reality for this character that makes sense. But the character as written is just the stereotype of the shrill wife who’s suffered a devastating betrayal and now can’t get over it. Without Britton’s acting, the character would utterly fall apart.
There are moments—very brief moments—when the show seems to tap into the kinds of character drama it would like to slide right up against the campy horrors. In the pilot, the “I love you” scene was one, and in this episode, the scene where Ben is running and trying to get away from his own memories of his student lover (now pregnant and played by Kate Mara, who only goes on TV to have abortions, apparently) works well to show how all-pervasive his demons are. But more often than not, the character drama is ham-fisted, with writing that’s just not very good. The show also suffers from making all of the female characters—literally, all of them—seem like vindictive shrews, whether they have reason to be or not. Since they’re played by Britton and Mara and Lange and Frances Conroy and Taissa Farmiga, it goes down a little more easily, but there’s not a woman in this cast who isn’t seemingly a little crazy about something someone did to wrong her.
5.) There’s no obvious outlet for stories, so the show flails a bit trying to find one. Here’s the biggest difference between Lost and AHS. Where Lost immediately settled on the flashback structure as a way to tell episodic stories, AHS isn’t quite sure what to do, so it, instead, settles on the horror reenactment of the week. (We’re also apparently going to get a moment in the House’s history as the teaser every week.) This week’s home invasion sequence is both scary and understated, and the scares in this episode are, in general, much more effective than those in the pilot. (My favorite? The ball rolling back across an empty floor, Ben not noticing, in an homage to The Changeling, I’m guessing.) But at the same time, this is going to raise huge plausibility issues. In a horror film, it’s easy to wonder why the family doesn’t just move out, but it rarely kills the narrative. Here, we’re already at the “let’s just move out” moment at the end of episode two, and there’s no earthly reason these people should stay, just as there’s no reason Ben should keep treating Tate. In addition, just how many traumas can one house spur? It seems like it will eventually become so far over-the-top that it will become even more unwieldy than it already is. But who knows? Maybe that’s the point.
- Last week, I identified the sequence of Tate walking through the school’s halls as being ripped from Kill Bill for no real reason. A few of you called me on it and said it was likely an homage to Twisted Nerve, which Kill Bill was paying homage to in the first place. And while I think the directly-behind-the-head shot is more of a nod to Tarantino, you’re right that it makes more sense story-wise as a Twisted Nerve homage. I don’t think any of this ultimately matters, but I probably owe Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk the benefit of the doubt on their knowledge of horror history. My apologies.
- How is Frances Conroy not a regular? I guess we’ll find out sooner or later, but she sure seems to be pretty important to the story (and unkillable to boot).
- Unintentional laugh of the week: “Aquarius” begins playing, and we see a bunch of girls in ‘60s fashions. “1968” blares the title before cutting to two people watching Laugh-In. You don’t say?
- Okay, I liked that Violet’s nemesis at school was so scared that her hair started to turn white. That’s a nice little touch.
- Scene that might as well have had a, “THIS WILL ALL BE IMPORTANT LATER” sign flashing at the bottom: When Constance talks with Vivien about all of her children. (Also, Vivien asks her to smell for other things wrong with her baby? Weird.)
- "Your sense of humor was and continues to be a delight."
- "Pizza!" This line just made Kate Mara seem like a dolt.