For five years, we watched Friday Night Lights’s Coach Eric Taylor and his unflappably good and decent wife Tami, played by Connie Britton, become the most indelible icons of integrity and love on national television. So what better way to mark the end of that era than to watch Britton having rough sex with a silent man who’s dressed head to toe in black patent leather? The source of this spectacle, FX’s American Horror Story, is either a brilliant, allusive piece of small-screen sensationalism or a total train wreck. But with its cinematic flourishes and phenomenally well-cast ensemble, even if the show crashes and burns, it should leave behind a fabulous corpse.
Set in a towering haunted house in a beautiful hillside area of Los Angeles, American Horror Story follows the fate of the Harmons, a family of Bostonians who’ve gone west to escape painful memories of a recent miscarriage and an even more recent infidelity. As the Harmons settle into their new abode, however, they’re immediately tormented by effectively unsettling creaky floors, psycho killers, and ghouls both sexy and scary. As soon becomes clear, the specters native to this real estate are highly adaptive, even personalized to this family itself, especially each member’s deepest, creepiest sexual desires. What makes the apparitions really scary, then, is the way that they serve as a mirror to the non-ghostly horrors that already haunt the Harmons.
Britton plays Vivian Harmon with the same intelligence, grit, and effortless sex appeal she brought to her role as Mrs. Coach, pushing here into a darker representation of female strength. As her daughter, Violet, Taissa Farmiga—younger sister of Vera—brings a spunky, scrappy energy to her role as a tough-talking, troubled teen. The paterfamilias of the cursed threesome is the psychiatrist father, Ben, played by the only dud of this ensemble, the perennially uninteresting Dylan McDermott. Trying hard to muster the desperate smarm of John Cassavetes’s struggling actor from Rosemary’s Baby, McDermott comes off instead as though he’s auditioning for a supporting role on Burn Notice, and every scene he shares with either of his formidable female co-stars puts this talent differential into relief. (Was Kyle Chandler not available?)
The family is pestered, at first, by the aforementioned leather-clad fiend (whom Vivian mistakes for her husband), but more insistently by Constance (a very hammy Jessica Lange), a nosy neighbor who seems as if she just stepped out an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond as directed by Tennessee Williams. While Constance, for the moment, seems like a living person and not a ghost, her monstrousness is nevertheless immediately evident, especially in her emotionally abusive relationship with Addie (Jamie Brewer), her Down syndrome-afflicted, sixth sense-possessing daughter. Additionally vexing to the Harmons: an age-shifting maid, Moira, who appears alternately as a harmless, if vaguely sinister, old crone (Frances Conroy, wickedly funny as usual) to the unsuspecting Vivian and as a super-horny, buxom twentysomething (Alex Breckenridge) to the lecherous Ben; and Larry, a horribly burned former resident of the house, whose crimes have left him looking like a plucked rooster, but who has the good fortune of being portrayed by the wily character actor Denis O’Hare.
Despite the (largely) fine performances, there’s something a little shallow about American Horror Story. Both the miscarriage and adultery subplots are rather predictable and undeveloped. And while Britton is able to sell her grief to viewers, McDermott struggles to make us care at all. By the second time Ben has to interrupt his jogging routine to loudly weep on a park path, we’re ready for somebody, anybody to murder him when he gets back home. And while each of the house’s own ghastly secrets is unveiled in gripping fashion, the ultimate revelations tend to underwhelm. Each episode begins with a flashback to a grisly murder from the house’s past, but as tense and effectively scary as these set pieces are, when these victims inevitably turn up as bloody ghosts, the show feels less like a subversive thriller than an R-rated episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? It doesn’t help that much of the show’s mood is conjured by chintzy cinematographic tics like exaggerated angles and sucker-punch zooms—techniques meant to put viewers feel ill at ease, but really only succeed at making us feel ill.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, the team behind Glee and Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story works as a kind of amalgam of those two shows, pulsing with all the campy referentiality of Glee and cut with the psychosexual violence of Nip/Tuck. From the confident, cinematic style to the seasoned performances, American Horror Story easily transcends those forebears, but the show feels flimsy in comparison to the other horror stories it evokes, like Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, Dark Shadows, Psycho, and even True Blood. A kind of mixtape of classic horror influences, rather than an homage or revision, American Horror Story tries to construct a compelling psychological thriller primarily out of other peoples’ formal innovations. And as stunning, seamless, and well-curated as this particular mixtape is, the viewer is haunted by the constant anxiety that, in the end, there’s nothing holding it all together other than good taste.