Let’s say you had a friend in college… No, “friend” is too strong. Let’s say you knew a guy in college who would show up to every party, have a few drinks and start acting crazy. For a little while, everyone would enjoy just watching him operate in a completely liquid state – sometimes doing genuinely entertaining things that he wouldn’t have the nerve to do sober, other times just being an amusing mess. And then after the empty beer cans piled up, the guy’s behavior would start becoming more unsettling, to the point where even the rubberneckers had to look away, feeling bad that they’d watched this wreck in the first place.
Watching a Ryan Murphy-created show tends to follow the same pattern. Both “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee” debuted with attention-getting premises and stories, where the execution was often less relevant than the “My god, did I just see that?” spectacle. And then Murphy keeps trying to outdo himself, going more and more over the top each time, until by the second or third season it’s mortifying.
“American Horror Story” (tomorrow at 10 p.m., FX), the new drama Murphy co-created with “Glee” partner Brad Falchuk, speeds up the process, starting out as the TV equivalent of the college guy after eight too many beers, rather than ramping up to that awkward level. It is so far over the top that the top is a microscopic speck in its rearview mirror, and so full of strange sounds, sights and characters that you likely won’t forget it – even though many of you(*) will wish you could.
(*) I will say that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this show is a hit for FX. It’s noisy and attention-getting in a way that very few TV dramas are these days, and the quality bar for horror movies to be successful is lower than almost any other genre. But there’s going to be no middle ground here: people will either love this or, like me, loathe it.
Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton play Ben and Vivien Harmon, a married Boston couple going through what seems like 17 different crises at once, including Vivien recovering from a difficult, violently unsuccessful pregnancy and Ben cheating on her with a younger woman. They decide the best solution is to move away themselves and teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) from the site of all their problems, buying a posh old house in Los Angeles that – in a convenient omission from their realtor – has been the site of a series of grisly murders, with most of the home’s owners over the decades going mad and turning on their loved ones or anyone unlucky enough to walk in the front door.
The house itself is a marvel of production design; it wouldn’t be hard at all to imagine that many baroque, terrifying things have happened there even if the series didn’t open with a flashback to one of the many murders. But the problem with doing a haunted house story as an ongoing series rather than as a movie is that it becomes harder to justify why the occupants don’t just move out, already. The events of the series’ second episode are the kind that would drive any sensible person – and if you don’t want a character to seem sensible, you don’t cast Connie “Mrs. Coach” Britton – to run screaming and never, ever, look back, only for the third episode to contort itself into knots explaining (not very convincingly) why the Harmons will stay in this hellpit.
But then, plot logic and plausible characterization don’t have any business in a Murphy/Falchuk show. “Glee” is occasionally capable of featuring recognizable human behavior, like in tonight’s mostly-solid episode, with a scripted credited to that show’s third creator, Ian Brennan (who has nothing to do with “American Horror Story”). The problem is that those human moments are forgotten the second it’s not convenient to whatever crazy idea the creators want to try out next. And “American Horror Story” is less a scripted drama than a crazy idea delivery system.
You want to throw in the “Psycho” strings during an attack scene set in the ’60s? Go for it! You want Jessica Lange to skip past chewing scenery to swallowing it wholesale as the Harmon’s eccentric Southern belle neighbor? Why not! You want to throw out all the goodwill you generated on “Glee” by writing three-dimensional characters with Down syndrome and give Lange’s character a daughter with Down’s who’s there only as creepy set dressing?(**) Have at it! Denis O’Hare covered in burn makeup? Alexandra Breckenridge wandering around in a fetish maid costume? A rubber gimp suit as a major plot point? Great idea, greater, greatest!
(**) It’s rare that I get angry at bad television – usually it just disappoints me – but a scene in the second episode featuring Lange’s daughter (played by Jamie Brewer) made my blood boil at its tone-deafness.
With the exception of Britton, who’s making a noble but probably misguided attempt to give a real performance at the center of all this silliness (better, probably, to just give in and camp it up alongside Lange and the others), everything about “AHS” is as busy and/or noisy as possible. (This makes the show a perfect fit for McDermott, whose only two modes are whispering while staring or shouting indignantly.) The Harmons have problems piled on top of problems, even before you introduce them to this haunted house and its disgusting history, and it’s all so delirious that almost nothing has a chance to make the impact the creators clearly intend it to. (Each episode opens with a flashback to a previous murder at the house, and while none of the sequences are exactly subdued, the self-contained nature of them makes them more effective than anything that happens in the rest of the hour.)
Murphy and Falchuk have talked to the press about how the show was inspired by their love of ’60s and ’70s psychological horror/thriller films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Don’t Look Now,” and that they want to really explore this particular family unit. But the Harmons never seem like a family; just three vaguely-connected people who occasionally cross paths so they can yell past each other. And whatever thematic points the writers want to make gets lost in the rush to assault the viewers’ senses with the next whacked-out idea.
Ben is a therapist, and in the second episode he treats a woman who has a recurring dream about being chopped in two in an elevator accident. Ben goes on a long riff about what the dream represents, and asks, “What do you think might be shut down in you?” The patient replies, “I don’t know. I think I’m just afraid of being cut in half.”
That’s “American Horror Story” in a nutshell. It has pretensions of depth and ambition, but really all it’s about is whatever cool thing Murphy and Falchuk wanted to do next, hurled at the screen with such reckless abandon that none of it works.
If this is the level of crazy where “American Horror Story” starts at, the only genuinely scary thing about the show is trying to imagine where its creators will take it a year or two from now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org