What on Earth is American Horror Story about? We can only assume that Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk hoped to channel some sort of antiquated mescaline-infused donkey-sex show, because that's what I walked away with.
What starts off as a seemingly innocuous haunted house tale, complete with the generic strobe light gag, turns into strange sex exhibition. And not the fun kind, with the fan dances and the seashell-cupped breasts. This is more of a "cry while you pleasure yourself" experience, under the guise of a sexploitation TV show sexcapade. And yet, I liked it. Spoilers ahead...
For those of you familiar with the work of Murphy and Falchuk, AHS is a lot more Nip/Tuck than it was Glee. Although you can definitely see the Glee influence with the high-quality soundtrack and plentiful use of the testimonial-zprofile camera shot. But this pilot wasn't really channeling much of the fun, homoerotic plastic surgeon mysteries from the first season of Nip/Tuck. Instead it was a lot more, "remember that time Dr. Sean McNamara raped the blow up doll in the middle of his living room floor?" So yeah, if you didn't like the later Nip/Tuck years, get out now.
From a distance, AHS appears to be your run-of-the-mill haunted house story: a quarreling couple (the Harmons), looking for a fresh start, moves into an old home with their sullen teen daughter. And everything goes terribly wrong. In fact, most of the bones of this series are composed of classic horror cliches. There's the prophetic little girl, wildly aggressive bullies, a creepy new boyfriend, a monster in the basement, secret science experiments kept in various jars, a horribly disfigured voyeur with a terrible warning, a ghost spiritually attached to a home, evil twins, The Shining Father syndrome, a pregnant wife... the list goes on.
But what doesn't appear to be more of the same horror is what's going on behind it all — or so we hope. Fingers crossed the parade of horror tropes in the pilot episode was just to get all that nonsense out of the way, and now we can get into the meat.
Vivian Harmon (played by the amazing Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton) is the damaged wife to Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott). Whose copious sexual indiscretions may or may not be to blame for the miscarriage of their son (due to stress?). In the first few minutes of the series, Vivian comes home from a sad doctor's office visit, where it was later revealed she was slowly birthing out remnants from her failed pregnancy — only to find Ben pants-down in their bedroom, with one of his students. She stabs him with a knife. It's excellent.
Flash forward a year, and the entire Harmon brood has moved to LA, where the real estate agents brag about how their properties were once homes to the doctor of the stars! Oh LA, land of sunshine, celebrities and mean school bullies who enforce their strict no smoking policy by trying to make the littlest Harmon eat her lit cigarette. YIPES! Also, no. This is not a thing that happens in high school, but it's OK because the writers explained the aggression because the bullies' Dad died of lung cancer so... yeah.
But that's just how this show rolls, everything is in the extreme. The school bully doesn't do drugs, she does COCAINE. When Dylan McDermot goes jogging he doesn't just run he RUNS HYPER-CUT SPRINTS. Opening the basement door turns into highly edited EXTREME DOOR OPENING. Ben doesn't just cheat, it causes him emotional pain not to be constantly putting his penis in something. Nothing is simple on American Horror Story Street.
After being teased and smacked around by the insanely aggressive gang of Urban Outfitters models at her high school, the gloomy daughter Violet retreats into the terrible stereotype that show has crafted for her. Violet and her collection of hats that only look good on teen TV stars (in one scene she sports a Davy Crocket cap — this is not a trend, America) hates her father, says sassy teen stuff and immediately falls in love with the first psychopath boy who enters her Dad's practice, Tate. Oh by the way, Ben is a really bad psychiatrist, but more on that later. And that's when things get even more "Here In My Bedroom" horrible for Violet.
Upon Ben's first meeting with Tate (who is a patient of Ben's, but not the one that he had sex with, we think — future twist?) the teenager explains his hidden dreams to gun down everyone in his school. Ben laughs off these wildly waving red flags, as any responsible psychiatrist would do.
The boy then hatches a plan to Heathers the school bully who has been picking on Violet after they're done comparing their cutting scars and talking Morrissey and Kurt Cobain (it's like the writers googled "what did teenagers do in 1998"). Tate then helps lure the mean girl into the Harmon's horrifying basement and either transforms or conjures up a demon in lace to scratch the young girls pretty face off. Violet is terrified, which is an instant betrayal to Tate, since she claimed she wasn't afraid of anything. Now we know that this creepy young lad wants murder his high school class, can conjure demons, and is afraid of rejection. This cannot end well for poor Violet.
Meanwhile Father Ben is having a hell of a time not sleeping with the ghost that lives in his home. Right after the Harmons move in, a strange red-headed old woman shows up and demands that Vivian hire her to be the housekeeper. And not to be outdone by her daughter's poor decision making skills, Vivian decides to let Moira work for the family. No reference check needed — apparently, Moira's story about how she did a stellar job cleaning up after the murder/suicide of the previous owners is good enough for Vivian. But here's the twist with this character: while Vivian sees a wonky-eyed, kindly old woman, Ben sees a hot young thing with exposed garters. Making matters worse is Ben's "accidental" stumble into Moira, mid-masturbation on one of their club chairs. Which leads to yet another self pleasuring session for Ben, but this time with punctuated by his screams and tears. Which means... he feels bad? I'd like to think that not all men make these sorts of noises after catching their Halloween-costumed ghost maid playing with herself.
You see, Vivian hasn't had sex with Ben in almost a year, and he's about to burst (Get it? You get it). And burst he does, right into a big showdown fight where Vivian reveals her wounded heart, "You buried your sorrow in some 20-year-old's pussy." And Ben cries about how she got a dog instead of talking to him after their son died.
It sounds nuts, but this was the first moment where the characters felt like real people. Bringing up something as petty as, "I needed you and you got a dog," gave us a break from the horror and finally displayed what was really going on inside these two characters. In fact most of the most memorable non-shock value moments are when characters reveal a deeper sadness such as Violet's remark about the death of her brother, "Have you ever seen a baby coffin?" Plus it helps that McDermott and Britton have fantastic "fuck you, fuck me" chemistry. They then break their sexless streak right there in the haunted house.
And again later when a mysterious figure appears at Vivian's bedroom door. Thinking it's Ben, and trying to prove that she "can be kinky," she sleeps with him. About halfway through both the audience and Vivian realize that mayhaps she wasn't having sex with her husband. But how you politely get yourself out of that situation, I'll never know. Did you catch that last look on Vivian's face? That was some quality "Oh shit, I just fucked a ghost in rubber." What should we make of this? Not sure but in the end we find out that Vivian is preggers again, and we must assume that she's carrying the spawn of Rubber Man.
So, the Rubber Man is haunting Vivian's vagina, Violet is being haunted by crazy Tate, so who is haunting Ben? Why, True Blood's King of Mississippi, Denis O'Hare! He tracks down Ben to warn him that both he and his family are in grave danger! What kind of danger? The Shining danger. According to Denis O'Hare the house made him burn his family alive (hence his now horrible burn scars) and Ben and his family must leave before the voices start talking to him as well. Too late, Denis — they already are!
But wait that's not even all of the characters! I've saved the absolute best for last. There's also Constance, played by Jessica Lange, and her "mongoloid" daughter Addy. Constance appears to have crawled out of some stereotyped gay man's fantasy. She is forever sporting a beauty parlor up-do, dons a Pucci-esque patterned afternoon dress, says things like "I adore the beauty of a long line" and delights in thumbing through her neighbors' possessions. Of course there's a much darker side to this creature — she calls her mentally disabled daughter horrible names, and may or may not have murdered Moira.
But even when she's being absolutely despicable, it's still Jessica Lange, flicking out a cigarette (from a cigarette purse!!) with the hand movements of a grand ballerina. She clearly knows much more than she's letting on, but I'm absolutely dying to see how she'll reveal her secrets. I'm wishing, hoping, thinking and praying that we'll be let into her plastic covered sanctuary sometime soon (if she's even real at all).
And that's it — which is certainly a lot. Clearly I was much more interested in the characters than in the basic plot, which was pretty weak. I've read a lot of folks claiming that this series was brave and crazy scary — I wouldn't go as far to call this show a nightmare, but whenever Constance was brutal to her daughter, that certainly made my hair stand on end. But the hyper cuts and sex acts were certainly flung at the audience from every angle. I'm not sure how this series can keep this pace up without losing the audience. My interest is definitely piqued — I want to know more about the house's three weirdos: Tate, Moira and Constance. Are they attached to the home, like the spirits from The Others, or are some of them actually alive? I'm invested... at least for a few more episodes, that is.
Questions, Observations and Odd Moments
- Once the leather "gimp" costume is revealed in the attic, the soundtrack starts playing the whistle tune from Kill Bill, "Twisted Nerve." That's a lot of Quentin Tarantino.
- In the preview for next week, Moira, Tate and Constance were all talking to each other. More proof that they're all ghosts?
- Dylan was naked a lot in this. Not so much the ladies.
- That dog is not long for this Earth. Addy predicted it.
- Could you live in a house with a horrible history? It's amazing what a difference a few years make.
- Biggest question of the episode for me: Who was the Rubber Man? My money is on Tate.