Sometimes when I watch American Horror Story, I’m convinced no one behind the camera has any understanding of what makes for good horror. The series has been prone to more laughs than scares, with a penchant for increasing absurdity and a complete disinterest in maintaining a coherent narrative or any semblance of worthwhile character introspection as each season progresses. Its kills aren’t particularly inventive either and no amount of stunt casting or connected universes have managed to make it feel fresh. And yet, there’s comfort in something as trashy and mindless as American Horror Story, a show that is only as competent as it needs to be, which isn’t very competent at all.
Now, I know that sounds like an insult—and maybe it very well is—but while watching the first two episodes of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s spin-off, American Horror Stories, I couldn’t help but find myself surprisingly entertained. It is deeply stupid from the get-go, but there’s a playfulness to the way it approaches the story it’s chosen to tell first.
In spite of being a show that is built on the notion of being “contained” episodic horror (rather than a season-long arc), the series kicks off with a pair of episodes titled “Rubber(wo)Man” that us right back to where it all started: the Murder House. To some extent it repurposes the gimmick of the show’s first season—folks move into a haunted house and anyone murdered in it becomes a part of its collection of ghosts who cannot leave—while also playing on its history. Michael, Troy, and their daughter Scarlett (Matt Bomer, Gavin Creel, and Sierra McCormick, respectively) find themselves taking over the Murder House to renovate it into a haunted B&B, planning on spending all their money and hoping to roll in the dough once all the work is done. Needless to say, this is a terrible idea and things go wrong pretty much immediately.
To the show’s credit, it handles the exposition of what’s going on within the house and its silly rules about ghosts pretty decently for those who never watched (or simply don’t remember) Murder House. But, the thing is, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that the set of episodes don’t do more to stand out as their own work rather than an extension of an existing universe. Eerie music and canted angles of a house don’t do much unless you’re aware of the baggage that comes with the house, but once the show starts indulging in its senselessness, it’s not quite so boring. The first half of this two-parter has, well, a lot.
Within 10 minutes, someone is already putting on a rubber outfit that they found randomly in a closet and appreciating herself in a mirror while Bernard Herrmann’s “Twisted Nerve” plays. After that? Unrequited flirtation between girls at school with every red flag possible. And then? A masturbation fantasy that culminates in an orgasm while Scarlett is imagining choking her crush Maya (Paris Jackson). “Twisted Nerve” plays again. Does it end there? Of course not. Then we’ve got the dumbest discussion of “extreme porn” ever shown on television, which includes two gay dads asking their daughter if she “fantasizes about being the masochist or the sadist” and pretty much kink-shaming their daughter because they think she’ll become a psychopath from watching this “level of pain and humiliation.”
Scarlett accidentally cuts her father while wearing her rubber suit! She talks to a therapist, who gets killed the second her scene is over! Mean teen girls livestream an intimate conversation between Maya and Scarlett (which Maya was obviously evil enough to plan with her friends) and laugh about it! Scarlett invites the four girls over and kills them all! Oh, also, her dead therapist is a ghost in the house and wants them to have a session. Despite this much story shoved into under 50 minutes, the episode itself actually ends on a satisfying note. It’s a clean enough episode that has plenty of killing (however lackluster the deaths themselves are), a rather playful little haunted house feel to it, and ends up being a story of vengeance in the face of humiliation for a character who clearly establishes herself as someone who wants to be the sadist in her life.
As much as it throws a lot of buzzy topics around and makes some inane claims about the relationship between sex and violence, American Horror Stories isn’t the kind of show interested in psychoanalyzing the characters. It’s more preoccupied with making jokes at the expense of the caricatures it features, from comically evil teen girls to the kind of white gays that Ryan Murphy has been criticized thoroughly for always featuring. Falchuk and Murphy’s script acts like it’s in on the joke, but their self-awareness only stretches so far. For all the winking jokes there are that actively make fun of the rather stereotypical way that Murphy has depicted queer people for over a decade, the show still manages to fall (or maybe flat out throw itself) headfirst into those tropes. The good news is that it’s a little easier to stomach the same inanity they’ve always been prone to as a creative team when it’s contained to one episode (or, in this case, two).
Where “Rubber(wo)Man” could have easily been contained to one episode, Falchuk decides to offer more, more, more. The overall ongoings of the episode are all so frivolous, but the introduction of Ruby (Kaia Gerber), one of many ghosts within Murder House, and the relationship that sparks between her and Scarlett is actually somewhat intriguing. Whatever nonsensical proclamations about taking pleasure in hurting people the show makes feel almost irrelevant when it comes right down to it, as the creative team almost seems to be trying to pivot to something more sincere when it comes to their dating. It’s nothing unique, this idea of wanting to live together forever as they are now (or even the notion of one person being free while the other is “trapped”), but on some level the episode actually succeeds at making one understand what brings and keeps them together. It’s not in the way the show haphazardly approaches abuse and recovery, but more in the way that this couple manages to find some ounce of growth in characterization in spite of being in a wildly unrealistic situation that keeps getting messier.
And, boy, does it get messy. The budding relationship doesn’t quite get the intimacy it deserves, in part because the episode as a whole only seems half-interested in exploring it and in part because there’s simply too much going on. That “too much going on” is part of the reason why the episode is, ultimately, rather entertaining in a brain-numbing way though. Aaron Tveit’s bit role as the contractor Adam may be the most insane and yet the most entertaining of them all, wedging himself deviously in between Michael and Troy’s marriage. He doesn’t just get to start an affair, he also happens to murder a houseworker, find the dead bodies of the girls Scarlett killed, and try to sort of help, sort of blackmail the couple into keeping quiet and letting him in on their whole B&B plan. The absurdity extends beyond him to literally everyone in the house, becoming something of a Scooby-Doo episode where folks are running around and plotting against each other, except, y’know, literally everyone in the house (except Scarlett) is dead and not loving it.
At some points it sincerely feels like the cast is as in on the joke as the creators are, especially when it features something as flat-out ridiculous as two dead gay ghost dads trying to tell their murderer daughter that she can’t date a ghost girl who is permanently stuck in the house they all inhabit. But it never quite manages to decide whether it wants to be taken seriously (whether that’s as a love story or a drama or a horror show or whatever) or not. By the time the episode, and the story as a whole, ends up becoming something of a dramedy while wrapping up, it’s hard to feel any satisfaction from how the plot continues to advance. There’s less pleasure in a neat ending than there is in indulging in the cheap thrills that the show offers but sometimes sidelines. It’s hard to feel like American Horror Stories did much within this premiere, but I can’t help but find myself curious at what’s to come when the series stops relying on its past and actually offers the contained horror stories it claims to bring to the table.
- I’m sorry that you’ve all chosen to join me for this journey and I’d like to warn you all in advance that, as much as I have committed my lifetime to watching most of Ryan Murphy’s shows, I have a very mixed relationship with his work. I love some and loathe others, but I am a weak person who remains eternally curious about what he brings to the table, even when it’s a mess.
- I also have to make a slight confession: I gave up watching American Horror Story after season three because I simply couldn’t stand full seasons of the show anymore (but I did, in fact, catch random episodes of random seasons every so often). And, yet, watching this made me want to give those seasons a shot. Maybe my brain is broken. Maybe I need therapy with a ghost therapist.
- Speaking of ghost therapists, obviously “there’s another therapist here” is a reference to Dylan McDermott’s therapist from Murder House. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how little the episode relied on making references. Yes, they were present, from the piggy man, to the infantata, to the twin boys, and so on and so forth. I won’t claim to be an expert at catching all of these, so I’m happy to see what folks note in the comments!
- What the hell does Ryan Murphy have against good wigs? I swear it’s like he gets hard just putting people in bad wigs. Gavin Creel, what the hell was going on with your hair in these episodes of television? I simply do not understand it.
- Oh, one more thing: while I don’t think anything was particularly well-shot or presented, I will admit I was pretty fond of the way they introduce Scarlett putting on the rubber suit. There’s a good balance of eeriness and eroticism and I wish the show had actually bothered to exploit that balance more in something like this. Like, come on guys, explore the relationship between a living woman and a ghost woman some more. It honestly could have been an episode of its own instead of lumping it together with as much nonsense as was packed in here.