I had not planned on watching American Horror Story, the new horror program which premiered on the FX cable network this past Wednesday night at 10 pm. My favorite subgenre of horror is supernatural horror. American Horror Story appeared from the teaser trailers to fall within the horror subgenres of ghost stories, creepy houses and psychological horror, all three of which are my least favorite. Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel went off the air, I’ve been getting my weekly supernatural horror TV fix from Supernatural on WB/CW. The new supernatural horror show that I’ve been looking forward the most is Grimm, which NBC has pushed the premier date back to October 28. Still, as a curious and dedicated genre fan I decided to give the first episode of American Horror Story a try.
After watching American Horror Story on FX HD On Demand and I can honestly say it is the most disturbing horror psychological drama that I have ever seen on Television. The lines that the show draws between reality, imagination and the supernatural are so fine that it really leaves you guessing as to which is which. I can't say that I found the show entertaining, but it is so skillfully done - both visually and contextually - that I find myself intrigued enough with the series set-up that I think I’ll be drawn to watching future episodes.
The basic story is about a married couple from Boston, Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton), who along with their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move to Los Angeles to get a “fresh start”. It is revealed that Ben cheated on Vivien after she had a miscarriage and was refusing his attentions both emotionally and physically. Ben, a psychiatrist, saw this old mansion for sale on line for a reduced rate and hoped that he could use one of its many rooms as an office to see patients. Even after finding out that the previous owners of the home committed murder/suicide, the Harmon’s buy and move into the remodeled, but still oddly creepy mansion.
All the Harmon family members have deeply disturbing character flaws. Ben Harmon is frustrated by his wife’s lack of sexual attention and her obvious need to take out her anger and grief out on him. Ben’s practice also puts him into emotional turmoil as well, which adds to his dysfunctional behavior towards his family. Vivian Harmon is not only still suffering from the grief of a lost child, but her distrust of her husband still forces her to distance herself from him. Violet Harmon is also troubled, as she feels aliened by both her parents, to the point that she suffers from self-injurious behavior (SIB).
As if their own problems weren’t enough, the Harmon’s home is invaded by a childlike woman who decrees the death of them all. Her mother, Constance (Jessica Lange) arrives to retrieve her daughter Abby (Jamie Brewer), but dispenses disturbing gossip about the gruesome murders committed in their home. Almost as mysteriously, an older woman named Moira (Frances Conroy) shows up at the mansion and declares herself the mansion’s housekeeper. She goes into great detail as to how she was the one to discover the bodies of the previous owners and that she was the one to clean up the mess. For some inexplicable reason, Moira appears to Ben as a very attractive young women and this causes the sexual tension between he and Vivian to increase even further. The first episode concludes with a bizarre sexual encounter between Vivian and someone who she thinks is her husband and a big reveal at the end.
Even for a cable network show, the language and graphic depiction of sexuality are fairly strong. While FX’s American Horror Story still can’t compete with HBO’s True Blood for its explicit nudity or casual use of the “F” word, it still conveys a true adult tone without resorting (thus far) to True Blood’s gruesome gore and blood. The acting is all finely underplayed in the style of Gothic Horror and as there are no stand outs among the cast, it plays nicely as an ensemble piece. I was somewhat displeased with the use of the character Abby, who obviously suffers from Down’s syndrome, and her treatment by her mother Constance, but I’ll give the show some time to elaborate on their relationship before sicking my metal PC police on them. As there are no strong moral characters in the show, it makes it difficult relate to or empathize with any of them. I’m assuming because this is serialized Television and not a one-off film that at least one of the characters will grow from their horrifying experiences as the program progresses. I’ll continue to watch American Horror Story for as long as they continue to exceed my expectations and not overindulge in the disturbing drama, but further explore the supernatural aspects of the show.