Ryan Murphy has always been criticized for pushing the envelope so much that his series become contrived and ridiculous. It's what he's become more or less famous for. Finally, Murphy has found the one genre which can survive such outlandish insanity, and unsurprisingly his new FX thriller American Horror Story is entirely batsh*t. This is a pilot that exaggerates the grotesque, filling every corner of an ancient California house with all kinds of ugly depictions of terror and menace. Most of this works in an off-beat, absurdist kind of way; but then there are elements which are so crazy that you can't help but cackle at how silly this show is.
Like always, Murphy has managed to convince legit actors to play characters who are more than a little wackadoo. The most obvious example here is Jessica Lange, arriving in her first series gig as a faded Hollywood wannabe who quit the movies to become the nutty lady next door who makes thinly-veiled threats while simultaneously spouting off charmingly offensive Deep South witticisms. She's crazy, all right; Lange going the full Bette Davis to play one of the campiest creations to come out of the Murphy wheelhouse.
The wonderful Denis O'Hare also intrigues as a former resident of the house who burned his wife alive and now stalks around the premises. I also really liked Alexandra Breckenridge and Frances Conroy (who is clearly the go-to actress for crazy old ladies) as two very distinct variations of the same person. That final scene between Conroy and Lange was fascinating. Are they basically good and evil, both fighting over control of the house?
The one weak link here is Connie Britton, but only because she's almost too good for this show. While everybody else is playing their parts like they're stuck in some community theatre version of Baby Jane, Britton remains tightly straight and naturalistic, trying to find the honesty in a show which ends with her getting impregnated by a ghost in a rubber fetish suit. I respect her for trying, but something tells me this material will only get nuttier. Unless the writers actually show some initiative and pursue the more human infidelity/miscarriage storyline, which should anchor the series if Murphy and co-EP Brad Falchuk have any sense.
Cliches are all over the place throughout the episode, but I guess that's natural for a show about a haunted house. There are the creepy red-haired twins, all the cupboards and drawers opening a la Poltergeist, creepy ghost women in the basement, creatures in the attic, the creepy housekeeper, the Down Syndrome girl warning everybody they're going to die, a disturbed teenage boy. The latter was the only element of the pilot I majorly rolled my eyes at. It cribbed a lot from the Nip/Tuck episode Enigma with the tattoos on his face and the murderous glint in his eye, but yeesh the dialogue was pretty terrible in that particular subplot. And are teenage girls really so shrieky and crazed? That felt a little on-the-nose. High school is hell, but I don't think popular girls immediately assault the new kid like that...
American Horror Story, so far, is a complete mess. But it's a mess that's inherently intriguing, one that manages to pull together everything that is both great and horrible about Ryan Murphy. There's the sassy dialogue of Popular, the psychosexual campiness of Nip/Tuck and the 'throw everything into the pot' annoyance of Glee. I'm in it for the long haul, though. It's wacko but I already think I love it. B
Read more at Unwelcome Commentary.