October 13, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “American Horror Story”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on AMERICAN HORROR STORY: All manner of dire craziness ensues when the Harmon family moves from Boston to Los Angeles and buys a house with a dense history of murder and worse.  The family was pretty screwed up to begin with–Vivien (Connie Britton) suffered a horrific miscarriage, and Ben (Dylan McDermott) cheated on her with one of his psychiatry students–but that’s nothing compared to what they find in their new home.  There’s Ben’s new patient Tate (Evan Peters) who treasures his Columbine fantasies and lusts after Ben’s daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga); the former owner Larry (Denis O’Hare), who murdered his whole family in the house, was dreadfully burned in the fire that he set, and is now dying of brain cancer; Laura, the maid who appears as a modest elderly lady (Frances Conroy) to everyone except Ben, who sees her as a young temptress (Alexandra Breckinridge); and the next-door neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange), a vaguely menacing presence who’s somehow tied in with the house and whose Down’s Syndrome daughter can enter the house at will.  And that’s not even to mention the various ghosts who haunt the place, the leather-masked stud who may have impregnated Vivien, or the monster in the basement (amongst the jars containing fetuses and body parts) with all the teeth.

Episode 2:  “Is everyone crazy?” Ben asks during this episode, written by creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.  And clearly, the answer is yes, and not just crazy, but psychopathic and homicidal.  The episode begins with a flashback to 1968, when two nursing students were brutually murdered in the house (with the show’s customary subtlety, the soundtrack literally accompanies the killings with Bernard Herrmann’s shower scene music from Psycho).  Other fairly explicit horror references in the hour include M (the thing in the basement seems to be playing with Peter Lorre’s ball), Rosemary’s Baby (Lange’s nosy neighbor channels Ruth Gordon when she realizes Vivien is pregnant), and The Shining (murder by an axe to the chest).  Also, in one scene Lange appears to be playing Alexandra Del Lago in a road company production of Sweet Bird of Youth, so you can’t say they don’t keep the references eclectic.

Ben might want to consider casting a wider net for his patients:  last week he saw loony Tate (this week, Ben tells the boy he won’t be able to treat him due to Tate’s disconcerting relationship with Violet, but that doesn’t dissuade Tate at all), and this week’s nutjob is an actress who, it turns out, is a brutal murder groupie; who shows up at the house with two of her friends to reenact the slaughter of the nurses from the prologue, the victims this time being Vivien and Violet.  Luckily Tate is there to dispatch one of them, and the ghosts of the dead nurses kill the others.  (Tate, Constance and Laura, who hate each other but are somehow linked, dispose of those bodies.)  

Meanwhile, in a storyline slightly closer to earth, Ben finds out that his student girlfriend (Kate Mara) is pregnant, and he has to go back to Boston to be there for her abortion–which is performed at a clinic that apparently doubles as a badly-funded asylum for the criminally insane.  (The promos for next week suggest strongly that the girlfriend will turn out to be a crazy person too.)  That explains why he’s not at the house for the attack of the murder groupies.  

American Horror Story is certainly compelling and tense–it’s like a mash-up of every horror movie ever–but it’s so unceasingly over the top that one has to wonder how long it can sustain itself.  Tonight’s episode ended with the only logical moment of the series thus far:  Vivien saying firmly “We’re selling this house.”  Clearly they don’t, or the series would be over; the effectiveness with which Murphy and Falchuk manage to explain just why that doesn’t happen will go a long way toward telling us whether the show will be able to hold itself together.  

Original Verdict:  Potential DVR Alert
Pilot + 1:  Good Luck Not Looking At A Bloody Traffic Accident

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."