(FX) It's nice when things don't pretend to be high art. It allows you to enjoy them without the stress of expectation. Am I getting the intent of this piece? Am I picking up on all the subtleties? Is the work living up to its full potential, or does its reach exceed its grasp? These are questions that distract from the simple pleasure of watching a story unfold. Discovering an addictive television show when you're not expecting to is a special thrill, and American Horror Story is one such show. It's trashy, melodramatic, shocking, fun, and surprisingly well-crafted.
The setup is standard horror story material: a family moves into a gothic house with a terrible past and brings their own troubles with them. However, things quickly spiral into madness, letting us know that this show is prepared to go places most wouldn't imagine.
In Season One, the hapless family in question is brought to the house by psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott). He has recently cheated on his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) in the wake of her miscarriage, and he's desperately trying to give them a fresh start in a new city. Their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is a disaffected teenager highly sensitive to her parents' shortcomings.
If this story has a theme, it's that of parental weakness bringing doom to the family unit. Next-door neighbor Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange) has a daughter (Jamie Brewer) with Down syndrome whom she alternately indulges and mistreats according to her own vanity. Former resident of the house Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare) shows up with a scarred face and a tale of his own tragic weakness as a father.
It quickly becomes clear that the Harmons' new home is haunted, and that a significant number of the people they've been interacting with aren't people in the strictest sense of the word. This conceit recalls Lost's blurring of the metaphysical realms and the constant uncertainty it produces. It's an entertaining guessing game that keeps you on your toes as the mystery develops.
The puzzle of what has transpired to give the “Murder House” such evil energy – revealed episode-by-episode through flashbacks to previous decades – isn't the only gripping aspect of the show. The writing is unusually detailed and imaginative for a genre piece, and the performances are unexpectedly intense.
McDermott in particular is spellbinding as Ben, a man whose life is careening off course, but who is frantically trying to hold his family together. His slightly sleazy charisma is perfectly cast here, and he looks sincerely tormented in nearly every scene. In fact, there's an argument between McDermott and Britton in the superbly confident pilot episode that rivals the vitality of live theater in its fiercely dramatic exploration of a marital heartbreak.
Lange is also terrific as a faded Southern belle with the deranged bitterness of an Edward Albee character. She delivers her lines with the scathing vehemence of an actress who never got her chance to shine – which is indeed what Constance reveals herself to be. Like the denizens of some operatic potboiler, every character seems to smolder with suppressed desire and menace – and yet their emotional dynamics are surprisingly involving.
Each season of American Horror Story takes on a new group of characters in a new setting. Does this mean that the protagonists are genuinely doomed to death and damnation by the season's close, or might a few of them survive to find some semblance of a normal life? You'll have to watch to find out. This show isn't going to tip its hand, and it definitely isn't going to play by the rules.
Why We Like It: intense, daring, hellishly fun, uncommonly twisted