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Straight up horror, that delightful combination of gross-out thrills and sexual chills, is usually something best enjoyed in short bursts, which is why it works wonderfully at the movies. But on TV? FX is giving it at shot with American Horror Story and, boy, is it something!
Brian Moylan: I didn't know much about American Horror Story going into it other than that it was a scary show by Glee producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk with an excellent cast. Even my low expectations were surpassed with the first episode. Aside from a terrifying opening scene where a pair of twins are murdered by some strange creature that looks like Gollum in a wedding dress, the story really picks up when a couple moves into the same house, which is obviously haunted. But these two have troubles of their own. After her miscarriage, Vivien (the wonderful Connie Britton) catches her husband Ben (
Dermott Dylan McDermott, sexy as ever and totally naked!) cheating with one of his psychology students. As punishment, she moves the family, including moody daughter Violent (Taissa Farmiga, Vera's sister), to L.A. to try to heal. When they get to the house, the terrors start almost immediately. That's what I loved about this show. Usually on TV a series will start with a slow burn and it will take a few episodes before you get to the real good stuff, before you know what exactly is going on. This show smacks you in the face with it in the best way possible. It says, "This bitch is haunted and we are going to give you nightmares that will make you scream more than an agorophobic on a roller coaster." I have to save I love it for it's boldness.
Richard Lawson: Brian, I'm so glad you liked the show! Unfortunately I wasn't able to watch the episode you saw. Instead I watched a laboriously weeeeird hour-long series of jump cuts to pointless twsissssted imagery that made no sense and played like one of Glee's more incoherent musical numbers with a modern goth twist. This is all to say that I completely disagree with you about this show! Mostly in that there is no show. I'm impressed you could even wring that much plot out of it — a whole paragraph's worth! I mean, the show is about what, exactly? Old ghost women and a ghost teenager spooking a terrible family (well, Connie Britton is kind of the Mary Sue, I guess) that refuses to leave the obviously awful murder house they've just moved into and refuses to call the police when a woman and her daughter (who has Down's syndrome — how creepy! Ryan Murphy's bizarre fetishization continues!) keep breaking into their house. Oh and also sex is gross and makes you a monster, sort of. Those were the only takeaways I got from this utter mess. I'd say that I at least appreciate Murphy and Falchuk's ambition except that that "ambition" seems so put-on and practiced. Ryan Murphy has consistently proven himself to be just this kind of hack, someone who only knows how to synthesize some ultimately cynical-seeming facsimile of the real thing (think Kurt's tedious and ham-handed beatification on Glee). It's insulting at least and completely rudderless at worst. And that was ultimately my main problem with the show; the sheer volume of Scary Stuff — they threw in everything but the haunted sink — rendered all of it completely weightless. It was all creeps for creeps' sake without any direction. I suspect Murphy and Falchuk are more clueless about where this monster machine is going than the Lost guys were. And that's bad.
Brian: Trust me, I know that the scariest thing about this show is just how Ryan Murphy is going to ruin it. I mean, here is the guy that took Glee and brought it from something amazing to horrible pandering dreck in about 20 episodes. Thinking about the second season of this show is enough to make me never want to sleep again. I can see your point, but I don't think that makes this a bad show. (There are several high-concept shows this season—this, Ringer, and Revenge that I wish they would make telenovela style with just one season and they would be so much more palatable, but sadly like soccer and Marmite, the telenovela will never catch on in America.) What I really liked about the storytelling and the style it was shot in—with the jump cuts and the barely seen monsters—is that the show never lets you get comfortable, and that's scary in itself. While we can see where some of the mysteries are going—Jessica Lange and the scary teenager and the maid are all ghosts—just how and why they're involved in the house is enough to keep me watching. As for all the weird creepy crawlies that we catch glimpses of throughout the show, I sort of enjoyed it. The scariest thing of all isn't monsters but uncertainty. I don't think you can fault the show for trying really really hard to be scare after scare after scare. What else do you expect from a haunted house? Right now, I'm willing to stick around and find out just why it's haunted and who these people are, but, given Ryan Murphy's shaky track record, I'm afraid I might not like the answers.
Richard: Yes, OK, I will concede that I am a tiny bit curious to learn just what is the what. (But not as curious as I am about what's going on on Revenge, my choice for most surprisingly entertaining new show of the season.) And maybe I did come down too hard on all the weirrrrdness. It's just that there was something so proddingly aggressive and unpleasant about it. All this stuff with bloody miscarriages and babies' heads and gimp costume ghost rape and mentally disabled children used as totems of foreboding. It just felt low and cruel and cheap. And because of that feeling I'm just less able to forgive the narrative boondoggles than I am with, say, Glee. (That we're comparing this show to that rather than to another horror show is testament to how signature Ryan Murphy's grotesquerie has become.) Sure Glee is mostly exploitative, falsely emotional junk, but it at least does a decent job of pretending that its heart is in the right place. But American Horror Story just felt like a bunch of sour people throwing acid and garbage at us and expecting us to be impressed with them for how daring they were being in insulting us. You know what would have been actually daring? Crafting a genuinely dark, earnestly scary haunted house series that relied on a true sense of uncertainty and the unknown instead of just sewing together b-roll from Nine Inch Nails' video for "Closer." This just seems like such a missed opportunity to me. Oh well.