American Horror Story: “Murder House”
D+

American Horror Story: “Murder House”

The grades for these things, obviously, don’t really matter, but I’ve never met a show I’ve had less idea how to grade than American Horror Story. By virtually any rubric you want to apply to it, it is a terrible, messed-up television show. And yet by doing virtually everything horribly, it becomes preposterously entertaining. I giggle more watching this show than most new comedies, and though a few of those giggles are earned—like Hayden talking about how she was not going back to that Norm’s—most of them are entirely unintentional—like the sad music starting to play as Larry the Burn-Faced Man buried Hayden, whom he’d just killed with a shovel, in the backyard, followed by Ben putting up a gazebo on that exact spot, seemingly in the space of 30 minutes, no sweat. The show is wildly flailing, trying to do so much and failing, that it sometimes seems that laughing at it is like pointing at a kid who’s drowning in the deep end and letting out a guffaw. But is there any other response to this sort of thing?

Tonight’s episode was interrupted by a short vignette in which the murder of Sal Mineo was portrayed for no apparent reason. It came out of nowhere, it was connected to the plot only tangentially (Vivien was on one of those murder tours where the guide was telling the story of how he was killed), and it seemed to be trying all at once to be a serious portrayal of a hate crime against a gay man—stabbed for trying to hook up with the wrong man—and a weird parody of a ‘70s gay porn, complete with bow-chicka-wow-wow soundtrack. This was almost immediately followed by a lengthy flashback into the history of the house itself, including its first occupants, a young couple known as Charles and Noreen. Charles was played by Matt Ross, better known as Alby from Big Love, and if you thought his character on that show was weird and repressed, this new one spends his free time sewing what appear to be oversized bat wings onto pig corpses. Fun for all!

I mean, how do you even approach that? On some level, the people behind this show are aware of how batshit insane it is, and they seem to be taking some of this on with an arch sensibility. I’m pretty sure Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and their writers (including Jennifer Salt, credited with tonight’s episode’s script) are aware that the sad story of Charles and Noreen is inherently ridiculous and are having fun with these sorts of horror tales. (There’s a lot of H.H. Holmes in this story, and I enjoy our continuing guided tour through the history of American serial killers and mass murderers.) I kind of think if the show was just its mythology—if the main characters were Moira and Constance somehow—I would like the show more. I can even imagine a show where Moira and Constance battle over the family living in the house, and the family’s just a sideshow in the background whom we barely ever see. But, alas, it’s too late for that now.

Instead, we’re stuck with the crazy, histrionic Harmons. Ben’s slipping under thanks to the laudanum somebody’s slipping him. (He thinks it’s Moira.) He finally lets slip that he finds Moira very attractive, even as it really puzzles his wife. He apparently pushes a patient to attempt suicide in the midst of a session, and he’s just surrounded by crazy chicks on all sides. (The rampant sexism of this show would be offensive were it not so goddamn ridiculous.) Vivien wants to move out of the house—quite sensibly—but she’s talked out of it by her husband, who admits that they don’t have any money, thanks to a bad investment he made in the Plot Contrivance Factory, and her daughter, who says she must stay in the house because that’s what the plot needs her to do. The episode also has a doctor tell Vivien that her baby could be harmed by the stress of moving, instead of just the stress of, y’know, living in a house haunted by evil spirits and worst and murderous kooks at best. Yeah, I’m guessing the baby was just peachy keen with that home invasion last week! (Actually, knowing this show, it probably was.) Anyway, the fetus apparently likes the house, too, because when Vivien goes on the tour and the guide launches into the Charles/Noreen story, her body discharges a little blood right in her special area, causing her white pants to go crimson red. She runs inside the house, told by the guide that she can’t, only to tell him that she can because, “It’s my house.” Right.

Any time I start to type out a more or less straight-faced account of what happens on this show, I find myself getting caught up in the sheer implausibility and stupidity of everything that happens. I get that the show is riffing on tropes, for sure, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this episode had no plot. What it had was a lot of regurgitated exposition that the writers apparently think we need going forward and couldn’t work into the story organically. Did we really need three separate reasons the Harmons couldn’t move out of the house? Of course not. But the show had already painted itself into the “We should move” corner—at least six episodes early, by my count, since this show doesn’t know how to do anything gradually—and it needed a way out. Rather than going gracefully, it reared back its head, bellowed, and charged straight at “believability,” which ducked its head and made a dive for the kitchen. And now the show’s getting wet paint everywhere. (To be fair, very few works of horror fiction reach a “We should sell the house” point and then go on from there convincingly. That tends to be an end game move, with the family forced to spend One Last Night in the house. The Shining and House Of Leaves come up with good ways around the problem, for my money.)

But at the same time, all of the stuff about the history of the house is so gleefully preposterous that it almost allows me to believe Murphy and Falchuk really do want to make a grand mix of camp and horror that could be good, juicy fun. The stuff where we learned that Constance killed Moira before in the most pedestrian manner possible—by shooting her through the eye (you know the one) after catching her husband trying to rape Moira? That was stupid but kind of fun. The bits where Moira’s apparently trapped by the house, since she’s buried out in the backyard (with Hayden, now, who will almost certainly start her own rambling around)? That was even better, just because I always enjoy when Frances Conroy starts screaming.

Make no mistake: This is a bad, bad show, and its treatment of its female characters, in particular, is repugnant. But at the same time, I wouldn’t stop watching even if I wasn’t assigned to cover the show. American Horror Story is terrible, yet endlessly watchable. It’s the best bad show in many a moon, and when Dylan McDermott tells Connie Britton that his pregnant ex-girlfriend is not a problem anymore while dressed as a vampire next week? You’d better believe I’m going to be there.

Grade as laugh-at-how-bad-it-is TV: B-ish

Grade as an actual, compelling piece of television: D+

Stray observations:

  • There wasn’t really much Jessica Lange this week, though that’s probably okay, since it also means we didn’t have to hang out with her magical, mentally handicapped daughter, the one element of the show that causes the most discomfort.
  • I think the show is going with a theme that the house amplifies all of your own worst qualities—notice how the cop apparently also sees Moira as a hot young thing—but that apparently equals all women having their crazy bitch side amplified. Otherwise, what’s the explanation for Hayden just abruptly turning into Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? (And farewell to Kate Mara, who deserved better than being retconned into a crazy chick and then being made a ghost.)
  • Denis O’Hare continues to hold down his end of the fort admirably, even if his character is completely pointless and superfluous at present. I liked when he tried to run alongside Ben and seemed like a particularly sad dog trying to keep up with an angry master.
  • What does Violet do this week? She broods. What does Angry Young Man Whose Name I’ve Forgotten do this week? He stands in a window. Hurrah!
  • Next week: The Harmons, who live in a murder house that attracts ghosts, demons, or murderers, decide to throw a creepy Halloween party. I mean, why not, right? At the very least lure trick or treaters to the basement and just see what happens.

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