American Horror Story Season One

As I have been tying up some loose ends before returning to school, I have found less time to devote to this blog.  I’m hoping that my new schedule won’t take me away from here completely and I will make every attempt to update as regularly as possible.  But I’ve missed writing over the past couple of weeks.  Anyway, lots more to do, so let’s start with one of the loose ends that was not quite so important, but still necessary to my mind.

The week after New Years Day I gave in to a friend’s urging and started making my way through the debut season of American Horror Story on FX.  The horror genre is a guilty pleasure of mine for two reasons.  The first is that a strong horror story is surprisingly moral.  It doesn’t matter how depraved and disturbing the story gets, it still portrays a world in which sin and vice gets punished.  This juxtaposition of gruesome, voyeuristic hedonism and supernatural retribution is fascinating to me.  The second reason I like horror is because I find equal fascination in the experience of being frightened by fiction.  Fiction rarely frightens me.  The real world frightens me.  As a child I was more afraid of serial killers than monsters under the bed or in the closet.  Thus, I approach horror intellectually rather than viscerally, which just seems wrong on some level.  Horror is meant to elicit strong emotional reaction, in much the same way romantic comedies do, just on the opposite side of the scale of sentimentality.  American Horror Story is a study in both what works and what doesn’t in the contemporary horror genre.  When it portrays compelling, sympathetic characters in horrific, life-threatening situations, then it succeeds in spades.  When it gives in to sensationalism for the sake of piling on more American urban lore, it starts to drag and bore.

The season-long story follows Ben, Vivian, and Violet Harmon as they buy a house in Los Angeles.  The Harmons are attempting to heal familial wounds caused by Ben’s infidelity and Vivian’s bearing of a stillborn child.  Each member of the family is emotionally distant from the others.  Unfortunately, the house they have bought is known as “Murder House”, as it has been the location of a series of horrific murders throughout the decades, starting with the original owners, an laudanum-addicted scientist with a Frankenstein complex and his child-obsessed wife.  Throughout the season, the story weaves (with mixed levels of success) various urban legends into the history of the house and the new reality of the Harmon family.  But again, the strength of the show is the portrayal of the Harmon family (Connie Britton’s Vivian being exceptionally well-done as the core of the show) and the cast of characters surrounding them, both living and spectral.  When you begin to care for the characters who are already dead, then I think the cast and crew are doing something right.

The show isn’t perfect.  The pace is often uneven as some episodes find themselves needing to convey elements of the overall plot but not having enough additional material to fill out the 42 minutes.  Thus we have introductions of elements that seem to be padding out the season (The Black Dahlia being one such “filler” element).  But at 13 episodes, the story doesn’t drag too long, and the highest compliment I can pay the show is that three days after finishing the season finale, I find myself missing the characters.  Yes, their story is over, but I want to see them again.

One thing that has me intrigued is that this season was a stand-alone story.  Season two will follow a completely new story.  American Horror Story is trying a format that is not common in the American market, and I want it to succeed if only for that reason.  The format is more British, even if the subject matter is completely American. This show isn’t for the easily squeamish or the easily offended, but if you like a good horror story, it is sure to satisfy.

2 thoughts on “American Horror Story Season One

  1. Great review! I haven’t gotten into American Horror Story yet, but one of the best things I’ve heard about it is that the show is so over-the-top and ridiculous with new plot elements and elements from different horror movies that it becomes fun to watch simply because you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Would you say that’s true, or is its strength based more on character development and shocks?

  2. I hadn’t consciously realized they were doing that, but it is totally true. They constantly riff on established horror conventions. I think it works in the first half of the season, but in the second half I think it isn’t as well done. There are elements that are introduced and then resolved in single episodes that do nothing to advance the arc (Piggie Man and Black Dahlia). I personally feel the best aspect is the character development. We start to care for people/ghosts, but the writers often subvert our expectations by revealing things the characters did in their past or by having them do unexpected things. The show is brilliant when it does this. The rest of the time, it is cheesy, horror fun.

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