If you haven’t noticed that television has changed over the last 6 or 7 years, then you probably don’t own a television. Thanks to HBO (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire), hour long dramas are no longer restricted to crime-of-the-week police procedurals and night-time soaps. And, more recently, thanks to shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica, they’re no longer limited to pay-cable either. With nuanced character work, complex narrative arcs that can take tens of hours to mature and evolve, and budgets to rival the best Hollywood can muster, in many ways this “New TV” is a genre all its own.
This year I haven’t seen every pilot, but most of the new shows I’ve sampled have been quite dismal. Many were even “didn’t make it through half an episode”-level dismal. Serial television is both a commitment and a gamble, not just for networks but for viewers. Not only is it incredibly difficult to line up all the variables and produce something worthwhile, but who wants to invest seven hours in something that may not even make it to a season finale? Or three hours, if you were one of the handful of people tuning in to NBC’s The Playboy Club?
So what does this idea of the “New TV” have to do with FX’s American Horror Story? Judging from the pilot, I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that I really enjoyed the pilot. This doesn’t tell us a whole lot about whether the show will evolve into one of the shining examples like I listed above, or devolve into the same-y crap that clogs our airwaves. Not too harp on the “what ifs” too much, but it must be said that I feel showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a history with such de-evolution. The first seasons of their pre-Horror Story shows (the ultradark, sexed-up soap Nip/Tuck and the still-running Glee) offered great promise upfront but ultimately delved into self-parody and banality in their later years.
But let’s look at the positives, shall we? We’ve been given one hour, and it’s a damn fine hour. American Horror Story’s first episode is an unholy patchwork of so many influences and references that a viewer has to ask themselves: at what number of influences does homage stop being a retread and enter back into the realm of wholly original? If there is such a point, I think Horror Story surpasses it.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Dark Shadows, which is valid, but there are also shades of Twin Peaks, Lar’s Von Trier’s The Kingdom, The Addams Family, Matheson’s Hell House. Most of all it reminds me of the 90s short-lived, but fondly-remembered (at least by me) series American Gothic.
These are all good influences, but Horror Story is also blessed (cursed?) with the one of the genre’s more recent, less-than-admirable trends: MTV-ization. By this I mean the frenetic, often distracting and nonsensical way that most ADD-addled material seems to be presented to young audiences these days. In the pilot, there’s not 30 seconds that go by without a jump cut, a trippy in-camera zoom, a subliminal flash of “disturbing” (and often arbitrary) imagery. Luckily, the rest of what’s on display is so pleasing that these stylistic annoyances are forgivable, and in some cases even enjoyable.
Ryan Murphy may not be a calm, metered director, but damn if he can’t write some of the best pulp dialogue. The script is chock full of snappy retorts, deliciously petty quips and crescendos with one knockdown Dynasty-level screaming match. The dialogue would be nothing if you didn’t have the right actors doling it out, and this is another area where Horror Story excels.
Led by the beautiful and talented Connie Britton (the slighted, tragic matriarch), the cast is a nice assemblage of talented familiar faces and some wonderful character actors. This variety of semi-self-aware high-pulp needs to be played serious, loud and seriously loud, and nobody in the cast seems to understand this better than co-stars Jessica Lange (an aging, bigoted southern Belle) and Dylan McDermmot (who is still probably flossing bits of the scenery out from between his teeth).
“But what about the horror? Will genre fans be happy?” You ask. “They should be,” I would answer. Beginning with a grisly pre-credits sequence that involves not only a creepy old house, an ominous little girl and pickled fetuses, but also glimpses of some kind of ghost/monster, the show continues to ladle on the shocks evenly over its runtime. Shocks that include—but are not limited to—a creepy gimp suit, a poltergeist pulled directly from Poltergeist, and a crispy Amityville-esque murderer. I think you’ll find something you’ll like.
Only time will tell if American Horror Story can stay the course, sustain its quality and become one of the few successful serial genre shows, but I, for one, am rooting for it. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.