While "American Horror Story" is going to be a hard sell to the mainstream population, especially any misguided "gleeks" who wander in just because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are involved, genre fans should love it. We had the chance to watch the first episode a few days early and are happy to report it's compelling, complex, and quite thought-provoking. Even an hour later the person I watched it with and I were still discussing it, trying to answer some of the questions it raised and coming up with quite a few others of our own.
The storyline has been retold over and over here on the site: Psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) cheated on his wife, Vivien (Connie Britton), just six months after her miscarriage. So they, along with their teenage daughter, Violet (a terrific Taissa Farmiga), relocate from the East Coast to Los Angeles to get a new start. They move into a house with a history - a very dark history - and almost immediately things start to get weird. A neighbor (a glowing Jessica Lange) and her Down syndrome daughter (Jamie Brewer) come and go practically as if they, not the Harmons, live there. A maid appears and says she comes with the house. Viv goes along with it - although she might want to rethink her decision since to her and just about anyone else, the housekeeper is a sweet middle-aged woman (Frances Conroy), but in Ben's eyes she's a much younger version (Alexandra Breckenridge), sexy and seductive and definitely trouble! There's also a disfigured man (Denis O'Hare) who seems to be following Ben - what the heck does he want? And then there's Ben's first patient in the new place: a messed-up Columbine-esque young boy who strikes up a friendship with Violet.
Obviously there's a lot to keep track of here, and the writers do a good job of giving us just enough information to stay interested and curious about both the history of the house and what's going to happen to the Harmons. The acting is, as expected, superb, particularly Lange, who steals every scene she's in. The tension between Ben and Viv is palpable and realistic, and their efforts to rebuild their relationship can be painful to watch. There's one scene in particular in which McDermott and Britton really take the gloves off and portray the kind of raw emotion that's all too familiar to couples going through similar tough times.
The overall vibe of the show is off-kilter and unsettling, enhanced by the excellent sound design and score, in which ambient noises play a big part. The juxtaposing of Conroy and Breckenridge is pure genius, and the setpieces and ghost sequences are creepy enough to satisfy most horror fans. The "psychosexual thriller" tagline isn't just lip service either - we have grown-ups masturbating, copulating, and donning weird fetish garb. All in Episode 1!
But the various parts don't quite gel into one cohesive experience. While, yes, most of "American Horror Story" is truly innovative and approaches brilliance, other parts feel a little forced and veer toward over-the-top. They have a fine line to walk, and hopefully in future installments they'll find their footing. Plus, I can't remember when I've watched something with more yelling and shrieking. It was almost annoying. But then again, surely that was the point. To keep the audience on guard and on edge. And … as mentioned above, very interested and curious. Oh yes, we will be returning next week for Episode 2 … and no doubt 3 and beyond. There's no way we're going to miss out on this mish-mash of "Twin Peaks", "In Treatment", and The Others (to name just a few of the titles that flashed through our mind while watching) over the coming weeks. We have to know who's a ghost (and how they got that way) and who's alive (and how long they'll stay that way)!