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TV Review: American Horror Story – “Pilot”

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From the creators of Glee, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, comes American Horror Story, which has been called pretty much the opposite of Glee. Vivian Harmon (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights) must give birth to a baby that dies seven months into the pregnancy. She seeks comfort by buying a dog.

Feeling rejected, Vivian’s husband Ben (Dylan McDermott,The Practice) cheats on her, and she catches him. To try to save their crumbling marriage, they move across the country and purchase a bargain of a house, whose last owners died in a murder-suicide.

And that’s when things start going really wrong. While sleepwalking, Ben plays with fire. Interesting, considering that a man named Larry (Denis O’Hare, True Blood) keeps approaching him, claiming that the house made Larry burn his family alive. Meanwhile, Vivian has kinky sex with a man in a leather suit, assuming, wrongly, that it’s Ben. She becomes pregnant, but is it Ben’s, or the suit man’s? Plus, daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) likes to cut herself, neighbors enter without warning, and something strange and dangerous lives in the basement.

As far as scary goes, American Horror Story is definitely that; it will make you scared to walk into dark rooms of your own house. The creepiness comes fast and frequently. To make matters worse, it’s hard to understand everything that goes on around the family.

Since the characters aren’t given explanations, neither are the viewers. At least understanding an issue can make it less frightening. The fact that most is unknown makes it even scarier.

Calling it the opposite of Glee may be inaccurate. After all, Glee thrives in the cliches of musicals, often going for stereotypical, larger-than-life characters and stories because that is the tradition in the genre. American Horror Story does the same sort of play with thriller tropes. It uses fast-cut scenes and creepy music to set the mood. Vivian walks up into a dark attic, even as viewers at home are screaming “No! Don’t go in there!” Young twins Troy and Brian (Bodhi and Kai Schulz) are slaughtered, and then appear as ghosts. There’s nothing creepier than dead twins! There are illusions, mind control, and monsters, each played to maximum fright potential. So perhaps American Horror Story is what the Glee guys do best, applied to a different genre.

The questions come fast and furious, and few are answered in “Pilot.” The Harmon family is immediately in over their heads, and don’t even realize it yet. American Horror Story‘s “Pilot” excels at setting up much intrigue, but leaving viewers in suspense, a surefire way to keep them coming back week after week. I’m not sure I understand yet exactly what the series is trying to do, but with the sex factor, a common play in the suspense genre, combined with some truly excellent mysteries which are hard to define, the series succeeds in setting up something truly special. There is no other show currently like it on television, nor does a past one spring to mind, which is plenty enough to set it apart.

How does the house control people? What is neighbor Constance’s (Jessica Lange, Big Fish) connection? She comes to Ben just before he burns his hand on the stove and tells him it’s not his time yet. Does she choose when the house pushes its residents over the edge? Why and how? What is the point in waiting? Are the Harmons already so much out of control of their own lives that they don’t realize all the strange things happening? Why does Constance’s daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), keep going into the house, telling people they are going to die? Is she warning them, or threatening them?

Plus, there is the mystery of the maid. Soon after the Harmons move in, Moira (Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under) shows up, saying that she is the long-time cleaner of the house. Vivian, initially against hiring her, is persuaded to do so. This makes sense, because Moira demonstrates much knowledge about caring for the older elements of the building, which Vivian is clueless about. But then Ben sees Moira as a young, sexy woman (Alexandra Breckenridge, The Ex List), whom he catches masturbating, and is tempted to sleep with. The different perceptions are unexplained, but ratchet up the freaky factor several fold. The transition between the two actresses, especially in the seduction scene, is disturbing, to say the least.

Then, there is Ben’s patient, Tate (Evan Peters, Invasion), who is psychotic. He dreams of murdering people that he likes. Violet somehow strikes up a friendship with him (does Ben not escort his patient out of his house?), and the two become close, sharing secrets. Though Tate tells her one should never hurt those he loves. When Violet is threatened by a bully, Tate convinces her to lure the girl to the basement of the Harmons’ home, where Tate and some goblin-like creature hurt and terrify her. It also disturbs Violet, but Tate acts like nothing is wrong. So is he part of the house, too, and can come and go as he pleases? Or is he just such a dark soul that he is drawn in by whatever dwells there?

American Horror Story lives in a specific world, with set rules that govern it, just like all worlds. The more creepy characters get these rules, and know how to not just survive, but thrive within them. They may even contribute to creating them, though how in control any of them are is uncertain. Since the show seems so sure of itself, it definitely holds an attraction, even for those confused. We might not get what it is going for, yet, but there’s a confidence behind it that says that the writers and producers do. This is masterful film making and storytelling, more than worth a watch.

Check out American Horror Story Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com
  • saam

    i love this twins!!