[Blogged by Jay Yencich]
In trying to get through season one of American Horror Story, and subsequently feeling I needed to try to review it, I kept beating my head against a particular wall. Do I reward a show for having fun with itself and attempting to be high concept, or punish it for becoming frivolous and failing to deliver on much more than jump scares? These are the conflicting currents running through the season: It’s simultaneously clever and hackneyed, serious, silly, and deadly. The result, as I tried, was that my patience getting tried.
If you’re as unfamiliar as I was coming in, hearing only the gleeful word of mouth, the series presents itself as an anthology format with each season being a new story and theme with the principal actors taking on different roles. The most recent season, Coven, was witchy, and the second season, Asylum, as I gather, focused on that curious intersection of religion and being one’s brother’s keeper with the realities of the insane and their institutions. The first season, retroactively, was dubbed Murder House, which doubles as a justification for much of what happens during it.
When I feel need to be generous to Murder House, I can easily point to its premise and overarching thematic: Miscarriage and the subsequent aftermath. It’s frequent enough in our society (I know someone who has miscarried, you likely do as well), and yet remains a taboo to talk about, a bête noire we confront in isolation. The best of horror often uses personal circumstances to explore our psyches and sensibilities. Thus, you could dream on a little show with sufficient ambition to try to decipher this, translating the subjective experience into a visceral response. Instead, we get viscera, as the amateurs of horror can provide (and I do mean it for both senses).
To back up a bit, though, I should address the pilot, which nearly caused me to abandon the project altogether. Shows are rarely their pilots, falling broadly on a spectrum of being one of the best of a short-lived series (selling the idea without an exit plan) or sloppier, sometimes experimental takes on what the show will become. AHS is the latter. Cameras are unsteady or zoom arbitrarily, there are jump scares and jump cuts, certain characters are aggressively odd, and the tone is uneven with jarring shifts from one scene to the next (Moira advances on Ben, moments later, catfight starring Violet, then transition back to religious iconography and sombre piano music). Probably the most grating quirk in re-watching is having a soundbit of young Adelaide repeating “you’re gonna regret it!” as a metacommentary on the infidelity the provokes the Harmon family’s move west. Why? For what possible reason? But then, Constance is a bigot from word one. Leah is a total cock to the stranger, Violet. Ben eats a banana as the show’s resident sex symbol is introduced. Larry is transparently shifty, lampshaded, then shifty again. I could go on, and one of the show’s flattest characters doesn’t even appear on screen yet.
Suffice to say, the show settles down a bit and eases into a form of storytelling. There’s miscarriage, sure, and a preoccupation with both sex, pregnancy, personal fulfillment, and death as would go with the territory. The writers/directors are playing around with these concepts out a genuine joy for the horror genre, so it never feels like the show has consciously given into a cheap route or monotony. It’s just clumsy, both on an episode-to-episode level and in the overarching sense.
There are more practical aspects of the shows execution and mythos that arise late in the season that I could single out as being flawed. Certainly many things that go unexplained or abandoned, but I feel like my complaints drop under three specific headers. Those other unraveling plot threads, moth-eaten bits, and mysterious stains, I’ll leave to those to others whose priorities drift more in that direction. I’d prefer to outline where the show falls apart conceptually, in increasing stakes.
[Snag #3: Self-Awareness]
Every show, even the best of them, can fall into that realm of doing the “I’ve got your nose!” routine on sober and functioning adults. It’s a side effect of trying to be clever: Pull it off and it’s novel, fail and it’s tiring. With that in mind, I take the show on its genre and don’t mean to complain about the cheap jump scares or the reddening of bare walls with improbable gore, what irks me is when the show acts like we don’t know what it is or what the conceits of the genre are.
In the first several episodes, there are some egregious and awful endings to episodes that only work if you have no idea how long a typical season of TV spans, suspending a disbelief in duration. Episode three ends with Viv saying, with no sparing of decisiveness and authority, that they will sell the house and move out. Episode four gets rolling and has the family frustrated, stunned, “well how was I supposed to know that all of our assets were now tied up in this thing?” Sad horn and nervous laughter from the studio audience. The Halloween two-parter ends with our patriarch packing his bags and kissing his wife goodbye, resolving to leave the house for the family’s benefit. Guess how long that lasts.
Such instances litter the series, not all of which are even relegated to endings (episode seven, I remember as one after another), but these are enough to get a taste for it. I can understand the inclination. Any series that presents itself as “suspenseful” needs cliffhangers to help drive it forward. But these cliffhangers individually feel of a lower grade than even a commercial break cliffhanger. They exist in a perfunctory capacity, without serving the show.
On the macro-level, the spoiler-y example I could bring (there will be only more spoilers to follow) is that Tate Langdon, as hinted at in the pilot, is a ghost and the perpetrator of a school shooting in the mid-90s. Ben Harmon, sort of protagonist and psychiatrist, has suspicions about Tate’s mental health and soon wants him as far away from the house as [im]possible, but doesn’t succeed in getting through to any police who might perhaps be curious about the fact that a supposedly dead kid is still causing problems. That is, until there are other things they might be more concerned about. This doesn’t even end up seeming as dire a problem as it ought to, though, because…
[Snag #2: Scope]
After the first episode, I was utterly convinced that I would be making the opposite complaint: That the show played all of its interesting cards too soon. The miscarriage is necessary tension, and so is the infidelity, fine. Then we get Violet’s picking fights, her cutting tendencies, and she and Tate hit it off a bit too suddenly. A little rushed, but okay. By the end of the episode, we know Moira the housekeeper/seductress is dead, Constance killed her, and that the house is resurrecting people as ghosts, which means that every other murder that has happened in The Murder House could get airtime, and does.
At its worst, this ends as a monster-of-the-week format. Episode two sets us down this uneven path by opening with sorority girls being murdered by some crazy who hates nurses and dresses women up like nurses so that he can kill them. This provides just a little bit of color in the climax, but is mostly irrelevant to the larger doings. It’s hardly the only time it happens either. Among the other low-impact episodes, there’s the Piggyman, who is independent of the house, and Curran of “Spooky Little Girl,” who is there mainly as an attempt to ground the show in “the real” via the Black Dahlia murder. Dahlia herself thematically resonates as a someone whose aspirations end with her objectified, abused, and killed, but her behavior and part in the plot merely cast her as a replaceable, confused ghost.
Other shows likely wouldn’t feel like they suffer that much from a little diversion — I’m not usually the type to say “arc or bust.” However, as the storyline bloats to include more murders and ancillary narratives, the ostensible goals of the haunting are made to seem more arbitrary. Of course, the Montgomeries figure in the house’s mythology: They are as tied to babies and disappointment as anyone. Why not imply that the weird and illegal basement abortions generated enough negative energy to send the house down the path to damnation? But do any of the women who died under those circumstances appear later? Do any baby spirits, aside from Thaddeus who himself is a minor and non-sentient player? No, just the Montgomeries, to be followed by an assortment of characters who sometimes were thinking about children around the time of their deaths (Chad, Patrick, Hayden, Travis on technicality, maybe Lorraine and by proxy her brood), but mostly were not (Moira, Dallas, Fiona, Gladys, Maria, Elizabeth, Tate, Troy, Bryan, Violet, Beau, the Exterminator, etc).
The great satisfaction of the haunted house genre is the idea of trespass, a specific transgression that dissolves the boundary between the physical real (location) and the situational unreal (phenomena). The more a story digresses outside of the impetus for the haunting, the less the haunting feels like a coherent entity of its own inborn logic and design, the less satisfactory any possible closure can be.
That all of this undermines the Rosemary’s Baby course of the ending is the damning result. Between the historical and the cultural precedents, to go that route is to call a moonshot. I’m not sure Murder House even reaches the warning track with its fly. There’s an attempt, I’ll admit, to bring in these elements from the pilot when Vivien finds the apocalyptic murals behind the wallpaper in the living room. But who put them there? Who within the shows mythology would have motive?
Constance is seen painting some macabre thing in a later episode, true. But in the same episode she’s flabbergasted by the possibility of Tate having had sex with Vivien, the catalyst that brings on our infant antichrist. If you accept that Constance painted the murals, you also have to reject that interaction with Tate as misdirection. In that case, you’d also have to disregard how the show insistently points to her use of the house largely as a means to the “talking with the dead” ends. Her reaction of “don’t you realize what you’ve done?” is by no means contingent on her knowing any prophecy at all. In fact, she seems outright spooked when Billie Dean spells out the theory in all of its religious and revelatory glory. And if it’s not the only connected suspect, then it’s just tasteless fiber almost holding the show together. Much like the gore, which reminds me that…
[Snag #1: Character vs. Plot]
Late in the sixth episode, Violet has a short chat with a man who survived the show’s iconic school shooting. Exhausted by an unrelenting parade of macabre teenagers asking him about the incident, he lays the facts out for her. The bullet hit his spine and paralyzed him: An inch more in one direction and he would have been able to get up and prevent further victims, an inch in the other direction and he would have died instantly.
This exchange manages to encapsulate the feeling of the show: The world is capricious, people do horrifying things to one another, and the only appropriate response is a resigned nihilism. Hell, in the final episode, there’s a confrontation between Ben and Tate that seems to come within a hair’s breadth of saying “there is no god, only people, and people are shitty.”
The world of American Horror Story: Murder House is a world in which a man can try to confront his fears and end up being murdered by something unrelated to them. A woman could attempt suicide because she’s worried that she’s boring and the therapist is falling asleep. Bands of listless post-teens can go capering about Los Angeles re-enacting famous killing sprees. A gunman, having concluded that the world is irredeemably corrupt, can go off and kill people he likes under the pretense of “saving” them. It’s our world, but with the darkest parts highlighted.
Taking a horror piece to task for being misanthropic feels a little silly, because what are slashers but prolonged flirtations with that sentiment? Bear in mind that I have no qualms with a show being bleak or existential. I think that it’s bold to position yourself to say things don’t happen with reason, as Ben argues to Hayden regarding their own meeting. But that theme is at odds with a plot that relies on a viewer understanding that, in the background, there was some orchestration towards a Big Finish, and that the Big Finish is achieved. Without that, you CAN attempt on a more character-focused show… except that many of the characters feel more like forces or avatars than human beings.
There’s the Harmon family as center, and the show needs them to be human, complex, and relate to things in an identifiable manner. It’s a little extreme at times (the arguments feel artificial, but I could be off base there) and they exercise one of my most loathed lazy television peeves, which is to mournfully say “Violet was soooo smart” without ever showing her doing smart things. Nevertheless, I think they have enough depth and grey area in their conflicting desires to pull it off in the end. Their little family in the finale, I would say, earns its heartwarming qualities. But the rest?
The Langdon family doesn’t have a great deal going for it and they’re our main foil. Addy is the most sympathetic of the bunch. As the episodes go by and she develops beyond being just a nuisance, you feel for her desires for normalcy and how she’s been pushed around her entire life. It’s another credit to the show to make a developmentally-disabled character a kind of a protagonist. She’s offed in episode four. From there, we get attempts to use her death to redeem characters who otherwise seemed unredeemable in the pilot, Tate and Constance. Each has their own arc of an attempt at it, but the final word on them ranges from sociopath to misanthrope. Tate still attempts violence as a solution to his relationship issues. Constance is without apparent qualm about being surrogate mother to hellspawn.
As difficult as these characters often are to reconcile with reality, I would regard Hayden as easily the flattest. She’s sympathetic for all of sixteen seconds in her introduction and then perhaps another thirty of the bar flashback. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but elsewhere she seems as irrational and unreasonable as any force of nature that wants only to kill you and/or have your babies along with exclusive rights to your penis. Everything she does serves those goals, though we never have the least inkling as to how in her history she came to be as fixated on Ben as she is, unless we take him to be truly and transparently that charming. There certainly are many attempts made to seduce him.
I could go into all of the other players, both ghost and non, but that would ramble in a way I’d rather avoid. In short, the characters that you can feel for have ill-defined boundaries and seem ignorant of what the house is actually doing. Moira’s continued willingness to be accessory to the Langdons makes her motives a mystery, offsetting what pity we have for her for being unable to get out. Chad and Patrick provide a darker mirror of Ben and Viv, but when their goals align with the house’s, it seems like a coincidence. Larry gets a surprisingly complete closure with “Smoldering Children,” and yet his plot value (Hayden, the dreadful “Open House” episode) is a display of his instability, which again reduces major events to caprices and leaves you wondering how long his newfound clarity will last. Perhaps it’s only another side effect of the brain tumor, if that was even the truth.
Those you have more trouble feeling for? I feel like Violet’s acknowledgement of Tate’s victims as being an undead Breakfast Club— and who wasn’t thinking it?— draws a bit too much attention to how underdeveloped some of the spooks really are. In particular, the Montgomeries, who as progenitors of the haunting are reduced to “Frankenstein on ether” and “pitiful if pretentious socialite with a dodgy memory.” You’d think they or Thaddeus would do more for the climax than just role play, but it’s all that they seem to be there for.
Can the dead be tragic if they never achieve that threshold of self-awareness that permits catharsis? This is a strange question to be asking, I’m sure. But it bears out on the very devilish designs that the season wants us to find so compelling. Were the players aware of what was happening and either for or against it, were they fleshed out as far as ghosts might be, there might be something in there of a Story. Instead, the rules themselves are unruly and the plot victimizes people we should perhaps empathize with more.
So that’s what we’re left with. American Horror Story: Murder House: Shit Happens, Then Satan.
There’s an undercurrent within the show that wants to talk about the dangers of obsession, both of the self-involved kind and the kind that casts wishes on other people, and yet it never breaks through to the surface. Perhaps it can’t, given that the situation is static for so many.
Is the season entertaining? Sure, at times. For all its faults, the creators plainly loved what they were doing and it shows. It does create, on first viewing, an intense and unnerving environment and is even occasionally willing to provide a decent character arc. Still, for having such big aims in both the setting of the stage and the final resolution, it meanders. The transit from point A to point B ends with a lot of lost baggage and certain episodes becoming outright extraneous. You can have fun with it, be idly scared, but it’s ultimately popcorn fare masquerading as character drama. And when I feel like I could use more popcorn in my life, well then I may give the second season a look.