American Horror Story (Wednesday at 10pm on FX) tries really hard to be more than just a show about a haunted house. The writing and acting are so stylized that you can feel co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (from Glee and Nip/Tuck) desperately hoping that if they put enough artistic bells and whistles on the show that it will magically become great. Instead, the result is an off-putting, jarring experience.
The story begins as therapist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is caught having an affair by his wife (Connie Britton). Along with their teenage daughter Violet, they decide to move across the country to Los Angeles where they buy the creepiest house in the history of the world (and that’s before finding out the previous tenants died in it).
To say more about the plot would spoil some big moments, but the cast also includes Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckinridge as the home’s maid (sharing the role), Jessica Lange as the aging Southern belle neighbor, Evan Peters as a troubled teenage patient and Denis O’Hare as a mysterious burn victim.
The actors are all exceptional, but they’re stuck in a painfully pretentious show. There isn’t a single shred of reality. Lange’s character refers to her Down Syndrome daughter as a “mongoloid,” the girls at Violet‘s school are senselessly cruel, and nothing is what it seems.
Great horror films can make a viewer feel like they’re part of the action. The opening scene of the original Scream with Drew Barrymore was the perfect example. It was so simple and relatable that anyone watching could imagine getting terrorized by the phone call.
American Horror Story, however, doesn’t take place in the real world, but rather in some off-putting, pretentious alternate reality where characters do and say things that no actual person would ever do or say. The acting and writing are both stylized so much that the show loses any semblance of authenticity.
Any attempt to scare (particularly a disturbing scene in the basement) is so far-removed from reality that it loses any genuine sense of horror. When all you’re doing is wondering why the characters are doing the things they’re doing or what exactly is happening, it’s impossible to get lost in the moment and disappear into the scares.
Instead, we’re left with a fairly banal examination of sex and violence, with erotic and disturbing imagery intermixed in a desperate attempt to seem interesting. One scene in particular between McDermott and Britton as the two hash out their problems in their new home is so jarringly forced and exaggerated that I found myself laughing at how bad the writing was and embarrassed for Britton that she has to follow her Emmy-nominated performance in Friday Night Lights with this mess.
In spite of my negative feelings for American Horror Story, it’s still a show I’d recommend watching just so you can see for yourself how strange it is. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen on TV, but in this case, that’s not a compliment. At the end of the day, it’s just a show about a haunted house.
(Image courtesy of FX)