American Horror Story is yet another creative, campy, barrier-pushing, and boundary-breaking new show from the twisted genius that is Ryan Murphy. The highly rated FX television series just wrapped its first season last week, and now it’s time to review the complete show in its entirety after having finally completed all of the inaugural season episodes. I will avoid explicit spoiler details, but I will touch on general events, character arcs, and themes that occur throughout the first season. I want to start off by saying, this show is definitely in line with Ryan Murphy’s other television series. It’s twisted, it’s extremely campy, the characters are flawed yet fascinating, and every frame has a pop to it in visual splendor. Aside from Nip/Tuck, which also had incredibly dark human behavior that only a parent like Sigmund Freud could be proud of, American Horror Story may be Murphy’s greatest creation yet. While Nip/Tuck and Glee were largely praised in their first seasons, the later seasons really took a beating from fans and critics alike. American Horror Story as an entire first season may not have been as consistently wonderful as those former show’s inaugural seasons, but it’s strength lies in its imperfection, ironically enough. The fact that it is so inconsistent with flashes of brilliance means this is an experiment in storytelling I would not mind seeing continued onward. Without spoiling anything, the ending of the first season really makes you wonder where the plot, and the television show, will head in its second season. There are rumors of entirely new casting and different locations, but one thing is for certain — if things do not get consistently weirder, the show will decline.
The premise of the show begins easily enough: The Harmon family moves from Boston to Los Angeles in order to rebuild their lives after Vivien finds her husband, psychologist Dr. Ben Harmon, cheating on her with one of his young students. They take their troubled and moody teenage daughter (played with natural maturity by Taissa Farmiga) with them, but they have no clue that the house they are inhabiting is a spot where the owners of the property have either been murdered or have come to a grossly death by the spirited forces that haunt the house. Each episode wisely begins with a flashback dating to an earlier time, where you get a chance to see the back story unfold for each of the ghosts that haunt the mansion, who once were owners themselves. Not only do these flashbacks work in giving us greater depth to the history of the mansion and the show’s deep mythology, but they usually end in typical prologue fashion, where a deadly event occurs that will have dire consequences for the Harmons in the present time. The flashback prologues build suspense and anticipation for the episode, and you feel rewarded when the prologue and present day stories intertwine near the end of every episode. You could call it a cheap steal from the way Lost handled its narratives, but I call it making use of a great idea and working it successfully into the story.
Most individuals are watching this show because of their love of the horror genre, which really has not been executed well, or even at all, on television as a long form drama series. I can tell you, it’s best to watch American Horror Story with the lights turned off to get the best scary experience imaginable. The beginning episodes have scenes that are specifically set in the dark, so that when a face pops out when the sound of a musical stinger is cued, your body literally rattles in fear and shock at the sudden moment of terror. Unfortunately, like most scary phenomena, the more you get to know about it, the less scary it becomes. Is it not true that the greatest of all fears is the unknown? The show slightly suffers from a diminishing quality of genuine scary moments and thrills as the season moves along, where the characters become fleshed out, and even the ghosts and monsters become as transparent as the human characters.
If I had to pick a highlight of the series besides its well-executed horror moments, is that it is currently the single best show for guest stars. You have Eric Stonestreet, Mena Suvari, Zachary Quinto, Christine Estabrook, and the ridiculously underutilized Sarah Paulson to give episodes those extra gravitas in acting. This show’s best quality is its acting and it’s dialogue sequences, no question. Jessica Lange is the master of this entire series. Have you ever seen a middle aged actress make one of the best and biggest career revivals in history? Lange not only steals every scene, but by the end of the season I guarantee you, you’ll say: “Harmons who?”, because Lange’s rationally scheming nosy neighbor, Constance Langdon, becomes the center focus of the entire program. While at the beginning she seems to be on the outskirts of the drama surrounding the Harmon’s, she slowly transitions to being the nucleus that binds all the living, ghosts, and other secondary characters together with a pure magnetism of will and sustenance. There is not one scene that Lange slacks on. She does not waste an episode, a scene or a frame on this program. She can be incredibly sweet, melancholic, conniving, rational, and downright insane, but you never get the sense that Lange’s Constance is ever out of control. And this coming from the one individual who suffers the most tragedies of any of the American Horror Story characters. If Jessica Lange does not receive a Golden Globe or Emmy win for such a demanding role that she is totally committed to, there is no justice at all.
While Britton and McDermott have moments of brilliance, Britton especially at the beginning of the show when her calm demeanor slowly unravels to insanity as the ghosts and supernatural events overwhelm her psyche, they never fully meet the acting potential they could have. If McDermott’s intention was to play the single worst psychologist, parent, and husband on television, then he greatly succeeded. His character is rarely redeemable, but in some tragic way you still feel sorry for McDermott’s Dr Harmon with his innocent “I didn’t mean to” expression in his eyes. I have to give Britton credit — after Friday Night Lights where she was the heart of a family and community, I did not expect her to make such a change in her career by playing a constantly traumatized and unhinged housewife. Britton’s Vivien goes from understandably tragic to downright annoying in most episodes, but at least Britton’s command of perfecting that good-natured mom figure never makes us fully hate her.
Aside from Lange’s Constance, it’s the central teenage characters that draw our interest most. Taissa Farmiga, sister of Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga, proves there are in fact acting genes with an impeccable take on a extremely troubled teenager, Violet, who finally finds another brooding soul who understands her in Tate, played with unwavering emotional intensity by character actor, Evan Peters. With parents like Vivian and Ben Harmon, who needs foster homes? Violet and Tate’s relationship is based upon their outcast position in society where each is more comfortable living in the darkness of death than the brightness of life. Tate himself is definitely, and some may say controversially, modeled after a “Columbine”-esque troubled youth who’s solvable answer to their frustration with society is to unleash violence and misery upon anyone in their path. Tate himself is definitely an enigma of a character. He does so many incredibly horrible things on the show, so explicitly wrong that you cannot help but shudder in fear when he is on screen, but Peters plays it so well that the innocence of boyhood creeps out in his eyes, in his voice, and in his frequent tears that it is truly impossible to hate Tate’s character. Even to say feeling sorry for him cannot quite describe the feeling you get from watching his character arc as the season progresses. You hope that one day Tate will redeem himself, but in some ways you cannot quite believe he ever will.
Denis O’Hare, Frances Conroy, and Kate Mara play recurring roles as individuals whose destines are tied to the house and the people/ghosts that preside there. Denis O’Hare plays burned victim Larry Harvey in his usual creepiness, but for some reason I find Denis O’Hare is getting a little worn out these days by his predictability. It seems like every role he is in, he is some kind of Machiavellian character with a hidden agenda. It’s like I can see his motives clear as day because Denis O’Hare is constantly being typecast in these types of roles. Suffice it to say, he is one of the least interesting characters on the program, who could have been limited to a guest role rather than a main starring one. Frances Conroy, who is renowned for her work in Six Feet Under, is surprisingly ineffective as Moira the housekeeper. The idea that she can turn from a young and sexy redhead in a French maid get-up to an old hag depending on the gender who is glancing at her is unique until the effect is repeated to the point of exhaustion. Frances could take come cues from the film The Help on how to shine as a maid, but Frances’ Moira never really elevates to more than a loyal confidante and occasional biter (Fans will know what I mean by this). As for Kate Mara who plays Dr. Harmon’s former student fling, Hayden, I can say she is easily the most annoying character on the show, whose aspirations are more in line with Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place than they are on a quality show like American Horror Story. Mara’s incessant lurking, stalking, and tormenting of the Harmons in order to get back Dr. Harmon and steal Vivien’s unborn child grows into an annoying nuisance of a plot as the episodes progress, and you just wish the writers had left her in Boston where she came from. These three actors, while stellar in their own right, are not utilized to their best and are more hindrances to the plot than elements of the story you want to pay attention to. Sometimes less characters is more. However, Murphy has to keep up the caliber of guest stars, and if he ever completely gets rid of the cast, I implore him not to let go of Sarah Paulson, who plays medium Billie Dean, and Jessica Lange as Constance. Their one-on-one dialogue scenes are so perfectly acted, it’s spookier than the show itself by how great their chemistry is as counterparts to foil the evil spirits of the house. Spinoff in the works, please?
In closing, I just would like to state the mark of brilliance of the show, and what could have made it a four star show if it had continued in this quality, was the episode entitled “Piggy Piggy,” which will easily go into my “top twenty five best episodes ever” list someday. What was so great about the episode was the way it utilized it’s guest stars as focal points to the plot, without totally detracting from the main character arcs of the protagonists. You had Vivien coming to terms with the horror of what her pregnancy may mean, and Tate’s true nature not only unveiled to Violet but also to the viewing audience at home in a chilling, yet necessarily uncompromising opening scene that takes what happened in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and turns it into a more visual spectacle of fear and dread. You realize just how fragile a youth’s mind is in this scene, and how a break in sanity turned into unspeakable violence can shatter the hope of all for a peaceful social existence. With the whistling theme from “Twisted Nerve” as his score, Tate could not have been a scarier character if he tried. It was difficult to watch this scene, but it also felt very real in its tragic expression. Eric Stonestreet makes a brilliant turn from his Modern Family character as a patient of Dr. Harmons who is scared of urban legend horror characters like Freddy Krueger and the like. He is most scared of the Piggy Man, where if said in a mirror “Piggy Piggy” three times aloud, a la “Bloody Mary,” the Piggy Man axe-murderer would appear and kill you on the spot. The child-like terror Stonestreet portrays gets inside you so effortlessly in its raw fear, that when the Piggy Man does show his face, I dare anyone not to scream in terror at the fantasy nightmare sequence Stonestreet’s character imagines as he recites his fears to Dr. Harmon. And finally, Sarah Paulson’s introduction as the medium Constance hires to tell Violet what Tate really is, is a comeback debut for the ages from the actress who happened to be the only great part of that crappy show, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip. Here is to hoping the underrated Sarah Paulson can continue to find great roles in television alongside this already amazing guest star turn. The end of this episode really sets up a string of questions about the fate of Violet, and you realize after watching “Piggy Piggy” that the show is definitely worth all the wild, crazy, scary, and bizarre moments to uncover genuine suspense and a surprising care for such flawed characters like Tate and Violet. If the quality of storytelling and high level of scare tactics were employed in all the episodes of American Horror Story, this show would have reached perfection. Instead, it’s a near-perfect show with inconsistencies in quality and character portrayals, but it’s faults only make us wonder what improvements and surprises are in store for us in the second season. No matter the outcome or direction, I cannot wait to meet the darkness of Murphy’s playground once again.