1978: Two teenaged twin brothers break into an abandoned house after being warned by a young girl that they’ll die if they go inside. They are never seen again. Present day: the Harmon family (psychiatrist father Ben, wife Vivien, and daughter Violet) move cross-country after a series of traumatic events including Vivien’s miscarriage and Ben’s affair…into the house where the twins disappeared decades earlier. The Harmons’ attempt to put their family back together is hampered by a series of events both mundane (including the intrusion of nosy neighbors, one of Ben’s troubled patients, and Violet’s conflicts with her classmates) and strange (a housekeeper who appears differently to Ben than she does to Vivien and Violet). What’s going on at this house? And should Ben heed the warnings of the mysterious, disfigured Larry Harvey, who tells Ben that the Harmons will die if they don’t leave the house?
Vivien: Do you ever get tired of cleaning up other peoples’ messes?
Moira: We’re women. It’s what we do. I just get paid for it.
Think quick: which current superstar television showrunner would be the best choice to create a vicious, creepy and intense horror drama? If Ryan Murphy–creator of Nip/Tuck and co-creator of Glee–is towards the bottom of your list, you’re not alone. My initial reaction to the announcement of American Horror Story was one of deep, deep skepticism.
The pilot is one of the strongest début episodes I’ve seen in a dog’s age, up there with the pilots for Breaking Bad and Lost, so hopefully my skepticism will turn out to be unfounded. The pilot’s script–by Murphy and longtime writing/production partner Brad Falchuk–establishes a series of intriguing mysteries (what’s the deal with the housekeeper, the neighbors, the patient, the disfigured man, the gimp suit, the murals?) and develops them just enough to keep the audience coming back for at least a few more episodes (although it remains to be seen if the momentum can be sustained over the following 11 episodes). But Murphy and Falchuk don’t forget to balance the mythology with compelling and interesting characters. The Harmon family crises are realistic and relatable, possessing just the right amount of melodrama and camp value to be entertaining without resorting to overblown histrionics.
Murphy also directed, and he brings a suitably modern gothic style (which I’m always fascinated with when it’s done well–it’s why I was kinder to Bones than I perhaps should have been) to the series. He pulls off an impressive remix of horror tropes and clichés, wearing his influences on his sleeve (the mysterious gimp suit is more than a little reminiscent of Clive Barker’s experiments in BDSM-tinged horror) without producing something that feels too derivative. The cinematography is excellent and while the setting hasn’t quite come alive yet (always a drawback to pilots), there’s a real sense of environment brewing. A few quirky music choices (everything from the legendary Bernard Hermann to the alt hip-hop of Son Lux) help establish the mood without becoming too distracting.
Casting is often more crucial to television than to cinema; at least for me, if I can’t actually enjoy hanging out with the characters for six or 13 or 22 episodes a year, it’s not going to hold my attention from week to week (one of the reasons I ended up giving up on the Doctor Who revival, as much as it pained me to do so). While not every performance is phenomenal (Dylan McDermott is a bit one-note as Ben, as are Alexandra Breckenridge as the younger version of housekeeper Moira and Denis O’Hare as Larry, and Jessica Lange’s snobbish neighbor Constance is a bit under-utilized; hopefully these are kinks that will be ironed out as the season progresses), there’s no bum notes being played. The standouts are Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) as Vivien and newcomer Taissa Farmiga as Violet. Even Peters is also a hoot to watch as the creepy and borderline (?) psychotic Tate.
As a standalone piece of work, the American Horror Story pilot is excellent and impressive. If I were reviewing this as a standalone episode I’d have no problem giving it four stars, but it does have a couple of issues that, at least at this point, are common problems with pilots to heavily serialized series. It still remains to be seen if the whole of American Horror Story is worth my time, but it’s off to a great start.
MVP: Taissa Farmiga
My rating: 6 of 10