And so begins this 12-week project, in which I and Simon Abrams, who writes for the Village Voice, Press Play and his own blog Extended Cut (among other venues), backtrack over season one of the Emmy-nominated American Horror Story, leading up to the October release of the series on Blu-ray and, of course, the advent of the show's radically rejiggered season two. Each Monday Simon and I will alternate recapping the next episode and discuss throughout the week what we saw, what we think we saw and anything else that seems germane regarding this fascinating new entry into the television horror genre. The recaps and discussion will be published on both blogs. Simon kicks off our first session with a look at the pilot episode.
In "Pilot," the not-so-imaginatively named first episode of American Horror Story, show-runners Brad Fulchuk and Ryan Murphy quickly but unhurriedly introduce us to the show's protagonists' and their world. The Harmons, Vivien and Ben (Connie Britton and Dermot Mulroney), move into a spooky old/new home with their misanthropic/teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Vivien and Ben have hit a rough patch in their relationship after she had a miscarriage and he subsequently had sex with a co-ed.
Ben, a character who has a more active subplot but is also paradoxically less well-defined as a character, is also treating a troubled teen named Tate (Evan Peters)--Ben is a psychiatrist, by the way. Ben tries to tell the authorities about Tate, who says he has recurring daydreams of killing his friends at school. But Tate is a liar (he lies about being on medication) so this is probably just a story. On top of that, Ben gets caught in the Web of Patriarchal Bureaucracy and conveniently cannot reach anyone that he can talk to about Tate. Probably because Tate is dead (idle speculation, not a spoiler!) and the shows' writers want to make it easier to reveal that later in season one.
Ben is just a rough sketch of a character right now because he's predominantly defined by feelings of pent-up frustration. For instance, he knows he screwed up by sleeping with someone other than Vivien, but by now, he just wants Vivien to forgive him already. Which is what makes the contrived, Dark Shadows-level introduction of Moira O'Hara (Frances Conroy!!!!!), the Harmons' home's regular house-keeper, that much more contrived. Moira will obviously take on a bigger role later on in the show (I'm guessing; I haven't seem anything but this pilot). But for now, she is creepy sex-bait for Ben, the contrite brute defined by his aggression and resentment.
Meanwhile, Vivien, being primarily defined in this episode by her own resentment of Ben and her household encounters with the charmingly creepy Constance (Jessica Lange!!!) and Constance's equally creepy but not as charming daughter. Constance and her kid have an unwelcome habit of showing up unannounced. They don't quite "break in" to the Harmons' home since "breaking in" implies a level of force that's not being used here. They just sort of amble in to the Harmons' home without being invitee. And Constance insinuates things at Vivien but doesn't pay attention much to what Vivien replies. Oh, and there's a rubber bondage suit in the attic, by the way.
Anyway! Vivien resents Ben, right? And she's also rally concerned with what chemicals and pills she uses. I like this detail about her. It's what makes her more than just an attractive and attractively well-lit shrew. Vivien thinks about what she wants now that she's alienated from her body. That point is only further accentuated when Vivien inevitably yells at Ben that he can't know what it's like to give birth to a small corpse.
Finally, Violet is an angsty teen: she takes to the new house as soon as she hears that a murder-suicide committed in the basement. The tone of Violet's subplot is thus a weird mix of ironic distance and immediate sympathy. Violet takes to hanging out with Tate after she gets hassled at school by a pushy popular girl. She and Tate bond (You like cutting your wrists, too? No way, let's listen to Kurt Cobain! Oh, how young and stereotypically disaffected we are!). But he turns out to be something creepy and inexplicable, too. And that's the pilot! I mean, "Pilot."
I don't know how in-depth I want to get in this opening salvo, Dennis, but I do want to sketch out some general thoughts:
-I like the fast pacing of this episode a lot. In terms of its plot, its dense but rarely felt top-heavy or rushed.
-I don't like the weird hiccup-quick editing style that's used in scenes like the one where Ben is chased and then actively chases the creepily-scarred peeping tom Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare).
-I am also on the fence re: the show's use of weird mini-crash zoom-ins and -outs. This can be seen when Tate says, "If you love somebody, you should never hurt them." Then a hiccup-zoom. Then: "Never." And another hiccup-zoom. What do you think of this, Dennis? It was also used in Ronald W. Moore's recent Battlestar Galactica reboot and I think it worked there. Don't know if the context of this show's content suits that style though...
-I love Jessica Lange, but I also really like the rest of the cast. Even Mulroney delivers a thoughtful performance; he brings an appreciable level of anguish and constipated anxiety to his role.
-I think I like Rubber Man. He's creepy!
-I also like the subtle attention to reversals that this episode semi-subtlely establishes at the end. I'm specifically thinking of the way Larry is ultimately pursued by Ben. Also, how Larry noticeably smiles after pouring on the tears when he warns Ben to move out. I think that's what sets Ben's story arc apart from Vivien and Violet's stories: they are being sincerely driven away from the new home and Ben is probably being pushed towards staying. I may be reading too much into this but I feel there's something about Ben's story that reminds me of The Shining's Jack Torrance.
-I'm not quite sure what to make of the film's sometimes sarcastic tone. I feel like Ben is being made out to be a Jack Torrance-style monster but more in the judgmental style that Kubrick interpreted Torrance than the way he was originally written by King. Ben is, in other words, basically a monster. Which is unfair after a point because that means he's right for thinking that he's basically being set up for failure. Does that make sense?
- I think the shows' writers have a noticeable preference for Vivien, which can be seen in the way that her dialogue scenes are much more reliant on reaction shots of her, well, reacting expressively (and incredulously!) to creepy shit. Or how about the added emphasis that's put on certain sentiments she expresses in conversation with Ben (ex: the triumphal way she sarcastically yells, "My hero!" in response to his BS line about the statistics of men that cheat after a miscarriage).
-I am not bothered by how illogical the show's plot is yet (how have Ben and Vivien failed to acknowledge what Moira looks like to each other in some way? This is awfully convenient.). But I suspect I will later on. And by "later on," I mean very soon.
More to come but I'm very curious now: whatcha think, Dennis?