Glee producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk screened their new October drama American Horror Story to TV critics at the Summer TV Press Tour in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. It stars Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton, The Practice’s Dylan McDermott, Oscar-winner Jessica Lange, True Blood’s Denis O’Hare, and a whole lotta screams, sex, jolts, mashed faces, psychotic behavior, and dead babies. If you have been wanting to hear the erstwhile Tami Taylor say, “I can be kinky,” this show may be for you. Then again, it may be the show that peels back your skull and makes you run bellowing from the room.
What follows is not a proper review, but some immediate reactions, reactions Murphy and Falchuk told the critics they welcomed, while calling their new creation a “psycho sexual thriller” and comparing it to movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The series will premiere on Oct. 5 on FX.
• The show is about a family, the Harmons (Britton, McDermott, and their teen daughter, played by Taissa Farmiga) that buys a big, old house in Los Angeles that may be haunted and which was definitely the site of previous murders. It’s a troubled little family before they even move into Big Scary House: Britton’s Vivien caught McDermott’s Ben (a psychiatrist) boffing one of his students a while back, and they’re still working through their trust issues, as well as the trauma of Vivien having recently birthed a stillborn child, described as “a brutal miscarriage.”
• A housekeeper appears unbidden one day to say she’ll begin work at Big Scary House, as she has for previous (dead) owners. She’s played by Six Feet Under’s Francis Conroy… most of the time. You see, when Vivien looks at the housekeeper, she sees nice, wrinkly Frances Conroy. When Ben looks at the housekeeper, he sees a hubba-hubba young woman in a sexy version of a maid’s uniform, snapping her garters at him and pushing her black bra up for his approval. Ben is possibly the most suggestible psychiatrist to ever try to work on his trust issues. We are supposed to think the house is making him have visions, as well as to sleep-walk. Or I think that’s what we’re supposed to think; one idea of the pilot is to throw the viewer off as to what’s real and what’s not, and constant shifts in point-of-view add to the confusion.
• Ben’s first patient in Big Scary House (he keeps office hours at home, kind of like Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, but with blood running down the walls occasionally) is a psychotic teen-aged boy who wears a t-shirt that says “Normal People Scare Me.” He scares us normal viewers by rattling his head so violently it changes shape, he speaks in tongues, and commits at least one act of violence. Did I mention that daughter Violet has a mad crush on him?
• Ben and Vivien attempt to achieve their former intimacy by having some spontaneous, mildly rough sex. There’s also a scene in which Vivien may (or may not) have sex with Ben (or not-Ben) while he is attired in a head-to-toe leather bondage outfit. (This is when Britton utters the “I can be kinky” line – our Connie, she’s a plucky gal!)
• American Horror Story is much closer to what Murphy did on Nip/Tuck than what he does in Glee, which is to say, American Horror Story goes over-the-top with deliriously excessive behavior early on, and just keeps cranking up the weird. I get the Rosemary’s Baby comparison (spooky living quarters, babies as symbols of life, innocence, and life and innocence betrayed); and I know what the creators are getting at with their Don’t Look Now comparison (the 1973 thriller with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a troubled married couple, death of a child, explicit-for-the-time sex, a shattered dream narrative).
I want to watch American Horror Story again – it’s crammed with details that require uncramming. At the very least, I can say with certainty that Ryan and Falchuk have upped the stakes (not a pun – blessedly, there’s not a vampire or a werewolf in sight) for TV horror. Unlike most scary TV shows (and movies), which rely upon the rhythm of a few quiet scenes followed by a boo! fright every 20 minutes or so, AHS is pretty much all-scare, all the time.
As I said, these are quick reactions. I fully expect American Horror Story to kick up the fuss that FX, Ryan, and Falchuk want. One more thing: There’s a general air of moral rot and emotional ugliness permeating AHS. This will have to prove exhilarating, rather than depressing, for the show to succeed. If it wasn’t too clumsy to use, the most accurate title for this new show would be: The Opposite of Glee.