American Horror Story is about a family and a house. The family is the Harmons (Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s sister, who plays their teen daughter). They buy a big old house in Los Angeles that may be haunted and was definitely the site of some murders. The Harmons are troubled even before they move into the Big Scary House: Britton’s Vivien caught McDermott’s Ben (a psychiatrist) boffing one of his students a while back, so they’re still working through their trust issues. On top of that, Vivien is overcoming the trauma of having recently delivered a stillborn child.
The above does not come close, however, to conveying the storytelling methods employed by creators and Glee exec producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. 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: a whole lotta screams, sex, jolts, mashed faces, psychotic behavior, and dead babies. On the basis of this and his Nip/Tuck, it’s difficult to escape the idea that Murphy has a thing about women’s bodies. He and his collaborators find endless ways to distort, alter, or torment them. A maid played by Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) changes bodies with a younger, sexier version of herself (Alexandra Breckinridge). The Harmons’ daughter, Violet, is a cutter.
Jessica Lange eludes pain thus far as nosy next-door neighbor Constance. Indeed, she’s a malicious hoot, far more colorful than the morose characters McDermott and Britton play (McDermott with futile strenuousness, Britton with cunning ease). Constance utters the pilot’s best, most baffling line, to the maid(s): ''Don’t make me kill you again.'' Add to this the dire warnings from a badly burned former occupant of the house (True Blood’s clever Denis O’Hare), and the murderous fantasies indulged by Ben’s teen patient Tate (an effectively troubled Evan Peters), and there’s a general air of moral rot and emotional ugliness permeating AHS. It will all have to prove exhilarating, rather than depressing, for the show to succeed. If it weren’t too clumsy, the most accurate title for this new show would probably be The Opposite of Glee. B+