Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: American Horror Story - Pilot

Two things that are not secrets:

1)  I have not found any new shows this Fall that are to my liking enough to add them to my DVR
2)  Connie Britton, yo

You probably don't recall, but last Halloween as we discussed our favorite monsters, I named one of my favorite monsters is actually a Haunted House

Rather than worry about Dracula or Moth Man coming at you, there's something primal about the sense of animism and the creeping sense that we're invading the privacy of even the long-dead when we enter spaces once occupied by others, especially when the artifacts they left behind still linger.  No doubt I just never really got over The Shining and The Haunting, or handful of other movies in which bad stuff goes down inside a space that can't seem to let go of its dead (I'm a fan of Poltergeist, too, but as more of a weird kid's movie than an actual scary movie). 

what could possibly go wrong?
American Horror Story arrives with as big a name cast as anything you'll find on basic cable.  Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights plays our lead, the wife trying to forgive her spouse for cheating on her (she actually caught him in the act).  The husband is played by Dylan McDermott, star of multiple TV shows, usually featuring handsome attorneys.  Jessica Lange (I KNOW) plays the, uh, eccentric next door neighbor with a daughter with down syndrome.  Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under plays the housekeeper who insists on returning to the job.

Frankly, I think the concept of "slow boil" was just completely a foreign concept to the creative team.  The show picks up and almost never relents, either through the content of a scene's dialog or through the manic quick-cutting, that, frankly, was overdone in their attempts to get a certain jarring and dizzying effect.  It was as if they just didn't trust the actors enough to simply carry the intended weight of a scene. 

Clearly the producers knew they needed to get the ball rolling and keep eyeballs coming back, and I think they may have been right, even if it affects the final product.  This isn't Lost, where the cast-away island setting might have been enough to keep viewers coming back for a while just to see what happens, shaking trees at the conclusion of the pilot or otherwise.  Its not just the obligatory pre-credit sequence that is a bit squicky, its about every other scene throughout the show, where everything is either just emotionally teetering or something a wee bit disturbing happens (including the supernatural.  No, there's no question what they're up to here).

Like The Shining, the pilot brings us a family in crisis who winds up in the wrong place, trying to remain together in the wake of trauma.  Vivien (played by Britton) has not emotionally recovered from a suffered miscarriage, which indirectly plays off Ben's decision to have an affair.  They've pulled up stakes and "tried a change of scenery" by moving from the East Coast to LA.  Obligatory sullen teen-aged daughter, Violet, is a cutter and hellion when she's away from her oblivious parents.

We get no insight, in the pilot, as to the source of the evil in the house.  All we know is that the last owners, a gay couple, died in a murder-suicide, but the house was built in the 1920's and abandoned for a time.  And then we're off to the races.

I made a comment or two on social media regarding "oh, that was on basic cable" as the language is definitely "after 10:00 PM" language, and the fact that there's a in-no-way-subtle sexual angle to whatever is going on in the house.  And there's a fair bit of surprising material to basic cable that appears in the pilot, from a fairly-explicit-for-basic-cable sex scene to Dylan McDermott's well-sculpted gluts exiting a room. 
This is definitely "not for the kids" viewing, with unhappy adults fighting about their sexual dysfunction, and the angles played on the various character's issues that the house seems ready to exploit.  It is creepy.  Its stuff I'd expect in a movie, but not when you're breaking for commercials for burritos and toothpaste.  And like horror that tends to stick with you more than your typical Freddy installment, this show knows the real sources of horror seem to arrive with us and what we're not dealing with from the inside out.

so, yeah, this is their oh-so-subtle ad
There are also some b-plots spun up, including a young patient of Ben's (Ben is a psychiatrist working out of his home) with Columbine like visions and a look cribbed from Kurt Cobain (who he also mentions in passing).  The daughter is having issues at school with really mean girls, and things get a little crazy there, and a former occupant of the house comes to warn off Ben.  And, good God, I have no idea what is going on with Jessica Lange's character, but her scenery-chewing scenes are terrific.

The cast is solid, and is actually at its strongest when Britton and McDermott are discussing their failing marriage.  The story seems fairly solid, but I wish the producers had eased off a bit on the creative editing, toned down some of the stock over-the-top "what a creepy house" stuff.  And maybe had about 2/3rds of what's in this episode here, or stretched it out to a longer episode.

Its easy to bag on the show as failing to bring anything new, and it doesn't.  I suspect that's why the producers turn to ratcheting the editing budget up to 11 and finding our how far you can push censors at FX with content that spills from sexually suggestive to "oh, here we go...".  the show does sing some old familiar refrains, but, honestly, isn't that horror?  Hasn't "doing what hasn't been done" led us on a path directly to Human Centipede 2 and the past decade of torture porn at the cineplex?

Still, I kind of hope that the planted seeds bear fruit and the show finds ways to not just exploit the same territory covered so well by Kubrick's The Shining or Wise's The Haunting.  What will it look like as an ongoing series?

The biggest question is how long anyone is going to think this can sustain itself.  Horror movies end in 90 minutes.  This has another dozen episodes to go, I'd guess.  And what do you do in season 2 without the show becoming a parody of itself?

Nobody is going to mistake this for terribly important TV, but its at least a bit fresh, even if its just the shock value of seeing what they can do on FX after 10:00 PM.  Or guessing what you do with the haunted house film when it becomes a setting for an ongoing story rather than just a single episode.


J.S. said...

Damn. I meant to put this on my DVR.

The League said...

It is likely on the FX In-Demand option on digital cable. Scroll way, way up to around 1650. They usually carry new episodes of their top shows.

Anonymous said...

I was mildly interested but once I learned it's an ongoing series instead of a movie I checked out without a second thought. Having previously been burned by Nip/Tuck and Glee, no more Ryan Murphy shows. Because it will be a guarantee, no matter what actually happens, the plot will veer into nonsensical land catering to Mr. Murphy's whims as opposed to any logical conclusion or based upon any sort of established characterization. It's maddening. And to have it happen on a horror premise? No way thanks.


The League said...

The ongoing series angle is actually why I'm interested. How does that work? If the answer is: badly, I just bail.

But I have the same concerns regarding Glee, etc... Glee had one of the most promising pilots I'd ever seen, but had the fastest slide away from what made it work in the first place that I'd ever seen. It was like going from Season 1 Happy Days to the Ted McGinley years by mid-season.

Apply that to this formula, and, yeah, it could be awful. At which point, like Glee, I will cease watching.