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Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck

Date October 04, 2011
Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck You've probably heard some buzz about 'American Horror Story' (10PM ET Wednesday, FX), the new drama from 'Glee's' Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. That's not surprising; if there's one thing Murphy is good at, it's creating shocking moments that the media likes to gab about.

The thing is, that may be the only he's good at any more. It's not that...

Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck You've probably heard some buzz about 'American Horror Story' (10PM ET Wednesday, FX), the new drama from 'Glee's' Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. That's not surprising; if there's one thing Murphy is good at, it's creating shocking moments that the media likes to gab about.

The thing is, that may be the only he's good at any more. It's not that 'American Horror Story' 100 percent awful, though at times it veers dangerously close to that. But longtime Murphy watchers know that it's only a matter of time before the few promising elements are clobbered to death by the dumb moves his shows inevitably pull.

If you do get pulled in by the show's wildly uneven premiere, trust me, in time, you are bound to be disappointed. Let me count the ways:

1. Even more than usual, the characters are place-holders, caricatures or grab-bags of wacky traits.

Of course you expect a Murphy project to be full of stylized melodrama and overwrought weirdness, but 'AHS' doesn't appear to be very interested in developing the people at the center of the insanity. The members of the troubled Harmon family, who arrive in L.A. after a series of personal setbacks back in Boston, don't particularly resemble real people and often don't react to the bizarre events that happen to them in ways recognizably human characters would react. It will come as no surprise to 'Glee' viewers that 'AHS' invents paper-thin reasons for all of that to be OK or simply ignores inconsistencies.

Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck In any event, after watching the first three episodes of 'AHS,' I can't tell you much about the psychology or motivations of any of the Harmons or the strange people in their orbit. I can tell you that Jessica Lange is chewing up the scenery as Constance, their Southern-belle neighbor; the Harmon's teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is sullen and generally unpleasant; psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is generally robotic and bland; and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) is whatever the writers need her to be at any given moment (she ranges from mean to wounded to, well, undefined).

Don't let the moody atmosphere fool you; it's merely a gloss on a lumpy, slapdash drama about relatively boring people, and when characters are trading wooden dialogue ("You need to pay for what you've done!" "Oh, I do, every day"), it's hard to get fully invested in any of it.

For psychologically driven horror to work (and that's what 'AHS' should be aiming for if it wants to draw viewers back every week), the show has to be deeply interested in the motivations and emotions of the people involved. But Murphy and Falchuk appear most interested in creating a series of scenes and moments that refer to better-constructed thrillers and scarefests, and the characters don't appear to interest them much, which is a shame, given the caliber of the cast.

2. The mythology of this show, such as it is, will fall apart before it even gets fully developed.

All right, so 'AHS' doesn't seem to be all that interested in making the emotional lives or the relationships of the Harmons seem complex or real. That might be OK if it the emerging backstory about their freaky house and its various inhabitants made any sense and was building toward compelling revelations. But we all know how interested Ryan Murphy is things like consistency, follow-through and thoroughness.

I'll give you a minute to stop laughing.

I'm guessing more thought went into the choice of lighting fixtures for the Harmon house than will ever go into the construction of the show's overall narrative. As is the case in 'Glee,' characters here forget what they want or what they've done to each other whenever it's convenient for the show: continuity schmontinuity. The story being told about the house and its history has some interesting elements -- does the house amplify the darkness in each person, or does it have a mind of its own? -- but the storytelling here appears to follow the 'Glee' model, i.e., "throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks."

Remember the Carver story line on the first show Murphy created, 'Nip/Tuck'? That's a model of economical and thoughtfully constructed storytelling compared to the opening hours of 'AHS.'

3. Are you tired of Ryan Murphy's previous obsessions? Well, here they all are again.

Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck The show revisits all the writer/director's usual preoccupations: Outsiders, false appearances, decay, blood, unhappiness, tortured adolescence, shrieky women, fertility and doctors who are up to no good. What does 'AHS' add to those topics, aside from some riffs on everything from 'Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte' to 'Rosemary's Baby'? Not a whole lot. What I've gathered from three episodes of 'AHS' is that perfect suburban facades often hide rot, lies and barely repressed anger. Every resentful high school sophomore in America thanks Murphy and Falchuk for re-stating that revelatory fact.

In any case, there's a deja vu quality to most of the show's weirder moments; at times, 'AHS' becomes a game of "Spot the Reference." Haven't we seen that pleather-clad dude before in 'Pulp Fiction'? Haven't we seen the crazy-cakes Southern belle in dozens of B-grade melodramas? Haven't we seen the overwrought female servant in 'Rebecca' and a hundred lesser movies? And having the talented Denis O'Hare trot around as a refugee from 'Twin Peaks' or 'Carnivale' doesn't add anything to the proceedings. I could go on, but you get the idea.

4. There is no real thematic progression or character development. Generally speaking, things just randomly happen.

Having people from multiple timelines interact (or appear to) relieves the writers of the burden of using boring old storytelling tools like cause and effect. Why do the past and present interact? What do those interactions say about the house or the lives of the people in it? "Something. Whatever. Shut up." That appear to be the answer that 'AHS' is interested in giving us.

But the biggest problem with stakes that randomly materialize and then disappear is that the lack of consequences and forward progress make everything quite tedious. What's more boring than watching a series of scenes that aren't all that related and characters whose lives don't accrue weight or complexity as they progress? But if you like narratives in which people parachute in and out of the story in order to say mildly ominous things to each other, this should be your cup of tea.

5. It's freaky and it will get your attention. But 'AHS' is not really all that scary.

Eh, occasionally 'AHS' is effective as a horror show, but as a whole? Not really. After a while, I began to view 'AHS' as a comedy -- it's so transparent in its desire to shock that you can usually see the big scares coming a mile away (what did the teenagers think would happen when they went down to the super-creepy basement?). It's hard not to giggle a little when the show goes for the vibe of a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph or a Nine Inch Nails video and ends up coming off as a unintentionally campy Syfy movie.

Consider Yourself Warned: Five Ways 'American Horror Story' Will Be a Train Wreck Way back in the day, when 'Nip/Tuck' was still a pretty good character drama, Murphy's shocks were part of an effort to get the viewer to understand the relationships and emotional states of his characters. But that era is long gone, as is the desire to inflict psychological and physical wounds for compelling purposes. One of the biggest problems with 'AHS' is that the violence seems to exist for its own sake. It's not there to illuminate anything; people are repeatedly attacked, violated and hurt... just because. That's disturbing in all the wrong ways.

Sometimes overheated Gothic melodrama can be fun (witness the first two seasons of 'True Blood'). But 'AHS' clearly wants to be seen as saying something about the state of the American family or the decay of the American dream. But it doesn't really have anything interesting to say on those fronts, it doesn't work as a character drama and it's tiresome more often than it's freakily scary. And if Murphy's penchant for self-indulgence is so lavishly indulged in the first few hours of 'AHS,' what awaits us down the road?

Do let me know. I'm stepping off this train wreck now.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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