Right off the top I want to say thanks for indulging with me in this rather ambitious commentary we’ve decided to undertake. I’ve always been a fan of horror on TV, especially anthology shows, but as a fan I’ve always had to acknowledge that though TV has produced classic series in the genre (Night Gallery, Thriller, The Outer Limits, even The Twilight Zone), horror has thrived more in the one-off TV movie format than in series form. (Dan Curtis’ great The Night Stalker begat The Night Strangler, and then of course the short-lived Kolchak series, the enduring fondness for which has more, I think, to do with nostalgia and the legacy of those movies rather than the show itself, which is kind of musty.) American Horror Story exists, as it turns out, as a strange hybrid between the two storytelling formats, something we can discuss later as the attack of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s plan becomes more apparent.
Speaking of which, you and I are approaching this show from different angles—I’ve already seen it nearly in its entirety (I’ve missed now, I think, only one episode), whereas you are at the beginning of your voyage, the pilot being the only episode you’ve seen so far. This presents a challenge for me— to avoid getting ahead of myself and drawing inferences or outright conclusions based on information that has not yet been revealed. I will strive to keep myself (with one non-spoiler-oriented exception in this piece) within the limits of what episodes we have both seen as this discussion progresses.
I like a lot about the pilot—obviously, I suppose, in that there was enough in it for me, much of which you touched on in your previous post, to keep me interested in watching. It’s a hodge-podge in the way that many pilots are, in that they have to quickly and efficiently lay down the groundwork for the many characters and plot strings that will become important as the series progresses. But AHS has the added advantage, being that it is a suspense-horror-oriented story, of the allowance for a sort of allusiveness that in another setting might seem coy. The presence of apparently ancillary characters like Larry, the self-inflicted burn victim who pursues Ben, or even Addy, Constance’s transgressive Down’s syndrome daughter, to whom she callously refers as “the mongoloid,” benefit from existing slightly behind the veil.
There is a sense (at least for me) upon first encounter with this episode that Murphy and Falchuk may have taken on a bit too much, are trying to stuff every darkened nook and cranny of the Harmons’ new old house, which obviously has a storied history, with horrors and rumors of horrors. But even from the start there’s an accompanying sense of method in the madness, that it’s not just scattershot plotting made up on the fly to goose up interest in selling the show (to the network suits or to us). The pilot’s first sequence takes place in 1978—two redheaded brothers, twin punks, trespass into the same house (currently abandoned) the Harmons will buy 35 years later with destruction of property on their tiny little minds. They hatefully disregard tiny Addy, who stands at the entrance and warns them, “You are going to die in there,” and it turns out she’s right—the two little shits meet a bloody end courtesy of the claws and teeth of something in the basement that will make a present-day return appearance before the end of the episode. Quickly, the show reveals one of its big cards, that it will not only be an American horror story, but also a history of this house of horrors, only a tiny fraction of which we will have experienced at episode’s end.
Speaking of Addy, it did give me pause that a character with this kind of physical affliction would be used to initiate goose pimples right off the bat. Only Murphy and Falchuk’s history with Down’s-afflicted characters—there is a feisty girl with Down’s syndrome on Sue Sylvester’s cheer squad in Glee-- made me ease off on the suspicion that this was simple exploitation. But the relationship between Constance and her daughter is a key point of character in the pilot— this mother-daughter relationship is conflicted, to say the least, and that’s one element that will pay off in spades as Constance becomes an even stronger presence in the show. (My one allusion to future episodes has now passed.) But there’s still plenty of Lange to thrill to here (and again, more on her later).
I really enjoyed your pointing out the element of these two just sort of “ambling in” through the doors of the Harmon house whenever they choose. Addy’s obsession with the house, as well as her motivations, are more apparently strange at first—now 35 years older, she still speaks of those dead twins in the present tense—whereas Constance maintains the pretense of down-home Southern hospitality. (When asked, she proudly claims her Southern heritage—“Old dominion, born and bred.”) Of course neighbors making themselves at familiar home in the houses of the main characters is a trope familiar to anyone who has spent any time wandering through the corridors of the Television Hall of Fame, and this is AHS’s sly, sinister tip of the hat to the Mertzes, the Jeffersons and all those who have waltzed through their neighbors’ doors without invitation before and since.
Some things that don’t wash as well for me in this pilot episode: You point out the teen angst of the Violet character, which has plenty of precedent in art and in life but seems somewhat overdone for me here. It may be that this sort of character and all of the attendant smart-ass wisdom that comes along with it is just too well-worn—it’s been a loooooong time since Sixteen Candles. That might sound a little reductive, but so is the sort of knowing shorthand that results in Murphy punctuating an early scene, when Violet discovers that the previous owners died in a murder-suicide on the premises, with a smirk and a “We’ll take it” directed at the Realtor, followed by a cut to the family moving in. This kind of sullen sarcasm that is part and parcel of Violet’s character is an obvious holdover from other Murphy-Falchuk joints (Glee in particular) and it posed a greater roadblock for me in terms of my interest in her story. So did the initial connection she makes over Kurt Cobain and wrist-cutting with Tate, your description of which made me laugh out loud. But it is also a signpost of the relative genius of this show that such resistance was eventually eroded away. (Is that too much of a jump ahead? Oh, well!)
And you’re right-- Ben and Vivien not acknowledging their different perceptions of Moira is puzzling and too convenient. It’s equally puzzling to me, however, why this was not more of an issue for me in this episode, and even as the series played out. It’s a chink of implausibility in the armor of the show, but the dissonance also rather neatly underlines Vivien’s apparently clearheaded point of view, about her relationship and her new digs, in contrast to the shifting sand underneath Ben’s feet. I’ll keep your observation in mind as we trek through the rest of the show, and maybe we’ll come back to this.
Regarding Ben, here’s what you said last time:
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?
Here’s one place where I have to be careful. It is interesting that Ben is perhaps being set up for a fate of Torrance-esque proportions, his obvious sex addiction being the crumbling foundation of his sanity. He’s being set up for failure, all right, but it’s the exploitation of impulses that were clearly in play before he arrived at the house that may (or may not) lead to further crumbling of that foundation. At any rate, he’s the weakest link in this family, despite his outward appearance of psychiatric calm and objectivity—which is clearly the primary joke here. (McDermott, however, does strong work, as you observed.) Ben remains interesting not only because of his weaknesses, but because of the self-delusion he maintains about the relationship and his guilt over helping to destroy it, and you just know he’s not gonna hold up well under whatever influence the house is imposing upon him.
And by the way, getting back to the show’s occasional faltering in the writing department, the scene in which Ben and Vivien finally blow up at each other regarding her outrage over his indiscretions and his attempts to rationalize them features the worst sort of over-expositional dialogue in the series. The raw emotion is undeniable, of course, but at some point I stopped seeing Ben and Vivien and saw only Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton, mistaking volume for intensity and floundering with some pretty bad dialogue along the way. I’m sorry. I cannot resist…
BEN: “How long, Viv? How long are you gonna punish me for?”
VIVIEN: “I'm not punishing you, you narcissistic asshole. I'm trying to figure out how to forgive you for having sex with one of your students. You want me to have sex with you? I can’t even look at your face, Ben, without seeing the expression on it while you were pile-driving her in our bed!”
BEN (Yelling): “I screwed up! How many times do I have to say I’m sorry! I was hurting too!”
VIVIEN: “”Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Did the life that was growing inside you die, and did you have to carry that around in your belly, the dead corpse of our baby son?
” (Italics mine-- DC)
Zing! Grunt! Oof! Yeesh. (And what corpse is not dead, by the way?) Yeah, maybe I’m nitpicking, and maybe the improvisational process got in the way here a bit. It’s just that this scene in particular is overstated and bad in a way that I think the rest of the pilot largely escapes. The scene does precede their sexual recoupling, which itself then precedes one of the creepiest “is it rape?” scenes in the history of filmed storytelling, Vivien’s encounter with the Rubber Man, whose function in the story, if any, is not yet clear. (Don’t worry. I’m shutting up now.)
One other semi-random thought: my use of the phrase “filmed storytelling” in the hope of including television and film in a broad sense reminds me about something that occurred in your last post which I thought was somewhat telling. You said at one point, ““I don’t know what to make of the film’s sometimes sarcastic tone” (again, italics mine), which indicated to me you weren’t thinking of this show in the terms typically laid out by the structure of either episodic or long-form TV. The American Horror Story pilot is obviously the initiation of a long-form story, but one that, not unlike the house that is its focus, seems also curiously, claustrophobically contained. There is a sense there that though the story has an arc, it is not one that has been designed to dribble out over several years. (And though I didn’t know it on the first pass, of course this turns out to be true, at least for the moment—the show’s second season will have nothing to do with this one, though Murphy and Falchuk have intimated that they haven’t ruled out returning to the storyline set in motion by the Harmon family’s move into the house.)
There’s a sense of patience here, of sure-footedness, which is maybe one of the reasons why that damned hippity-zippity camerawork and ostentatious editing gets on my nerves in not quite the way it seems, in its Se7en titles-derived way, to be intended. This sort of restless visual style is more the accepted norm in modern television (and movies), but I can’t help thinking that a TV show (damned if I didn’t myself almost type “film” just now!) that depends so much on a creeping sense of disorienting dread might not benefit from a camera that wasn’t so damned primed to unsettle us in the most obvious, and often inorganic of ways.
Maybe this is a generational thing? The horror movies I grew up with, the ones I tend to cherish most, didn’t have the available technology to overamp their visual style out of existence and had to rely a bit more on a quieter, less ostentatious approach. I’d like to see an American Horror Story come at the material this way and see what might happen.
Well, I have overstayed my welcome and have to move into the light of the everyday, workaday world, so I’ll save some stuff for later. I know we’ll get there—How can we not?—but I can’t wait to talk a little more in depth about Jessica Lange and what she’s doing in this series. We could touch on it this week, but again, using my prescient voice, I suspect there will be ample time to dig into her glorious work here as we moved into subsequent episodes. I’ll leave you with the line she leaves us with at the close of the pilot, as she shoots a withering look at Moira (Frances Conroy version), with whom she obviously shares some juicy history: “Don’t make me kill you again.” One of the best dialogue teases ever, and so masterfully delivered by this actress who, back when she sat in Kong’s palm, was presumptively written off as a bimbo, and then ignored again when she moved out of her perpetually Oscar-nominated leading lady phase in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Thankfully, she’s back, and with considerable vengeance.