Simon Abrams and I continue our exchange, here and at his blog Extended Cut, on American Horror Story's first season. This week we're digging around the guts of the pilot episode, and Simon has responded to my initial post, published only this morning, with more thoughts. Catch up with the entire conversation by scrolling down on clicking on the following links:
PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
I understand your trepidation, Dennis, and I appreciate that you're trying not to spoil the shit out of this conversation, you old so-and-so. But, if I may be so arrogant/bold, I feel like the fact that we're both coming at this show from different perspectives will only make our conversation more interesting. I also watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker (Love McGavin and the snappy dialogue, but yeah, it's kinda like Supernatural Mad Libs, huh?) and more of the original Twilight Zone than The Night Gallery (Jeff Lieberman just told me a funny story about how Rod Serling actually wore a red carnation when he first met Lieberman!). So yes, the anthology show format is one I also rather like. But I'm positive that you've seen more of this type of show than I have. I dabble, mostly; I'm a dabbler.
Also, I'm also coming at some issues from relative positions of ignorance. I've never watched Glee and I don't think I know anyone that suffers from Down's Syndrome. I only bring up the latter point because I feel that lack of perspective may have only served to de-sensitize to me to the representation of handicapped or autistic people. I mean, I did recently watch The Sentinel. And, after seeing that film's demeaning parade of pinheads, I essentially thought, "Eh, it's exploitative, but so what?" So, y'know, that lack of sensitivity is also a factor to consider.
At the same time, yes, let's get into Lange's wonderful performance as Constance. I think, as you said, her sensitivity to her daughter is starting to show pretty early on, as in the scene where she threatens to break Vivien's arm after distractedly apologizing for her daughter's unthinking rude behavior. Part of this is a matter of clever direction: I couldn't help but notice that Constance only threatened Vivien once Addy was out of the room. But it's also a matter of delivery. I feel like Lange does a superb job of managing the abrupt tonal change of saying, "I'm so sorry for all of this," and then, boosh, threatening to break Vivien's arm.
That having been said, I feel like we are both having an allergic reaction to the pseudo-modern style of this show. I feel like it suffers from Alan Ball Syndrome, a hipper-than-thou attitude that is evident in a show like True Blood and was earlier established in Six Feet Under. Alan Ball Syndrome is my admittedly inadequate way of describing an irony-intensive, and iruptive-ly sarcastic style of humor that selectively undermines aspects of a TV show's more flamboyant or just despicable characters. It's camp gone wrong and I think that's what distinguishes it from, say, Paul Verhoeven's style of vamping, which I feel is a good counter-example of why that style is not inherently wrong. Murphy and Fulchuk's smug style put me on edge here however because their tone is a bit disproportionately glib, I feel.
The Ball-y tone of "Pilot" is apparent from the show's pre-credits cold opening with the two ginger kids. These kids get what they deserve by going into the house. This understanding is standard Grand Guignol-style morality: you break a taboo, you get punished. But there's an unabashed glee to the way Fulchuk and Murphy build up to these kids' demise. One crows, "I hate trees," and the other barks at Audrey, "We have bats!" Then they run through the house breaking shit with said implements of destruction while a gay (you know what I mean) version of "Tonight You Belong to Me" plays.
This scene is a table setting scene, and that's not necessarily encouraging. Fulchuk and Murphy are paving the way for several little hiccups of inappropriate humor, which again, is not a bad thing. If done right, that drive towards constantly pulling the wrong out from under an unsuspecting ideal viewer could make such a pomo horror show really fun in a nasty kind of way. But here, these little moments of humor just feel...timid? I guess? Maybe I'm jaded (don't answer that, not a question!), but I feel like this kind of provocative sense of humor needs to go farther to be truly effective. Take for example the scene where young Moira succeeds, on her second try, at seducing Ben. Before she unbuckles the clasp connecting her garter to her stockings, Moira pouts, What are you afraid of? Your wife's not home. She's probably at pilates." This is a joke. I recognize this as a joke. I do not find it funny however because, well, it's just not that perverse, is it?
Likewise, I'm not sure what to think about Tate's probably fake daydream of shooting up his school. Using the theme for Twisted Nerve that Bernard Hermann composed and was later sampled in Kill Bill is unintentionally unnerving. I get it, I'm not that dense, don't hit me: what is the point of this scene if not to unsettle the viewer, right? But try to look at this scene from my perspective: given the limited information available to me, this scene is effectively jarring but it's also very hard to parse. This is the trouble with reviewing a serial narrative in piecemeal form, but I feel like it's necessary to consider how that narrative is formed in parts. And as such, I'm really not sure what to make of a scene like this or how it's presented.
Also, going back to my earlier point about how I feel Fulchuk and Murphy are biased in Vivien's favor, I think this is most apparent in some of their (possibly intentionally) top-heavy dialogue. For instance, some of this dialogue doesn't give me much to take away except for an aggravating sense of smug self-satisfaction. I do not like the exchange Moira has with Vivien when Vivien bemusedly asks Moira, "Do you ever get tired of cleaning other peoples' messes," and Moira indefatigably says, "We're women: it's what we do. I just get paid for it." Oh, piss off, puhlease, pffft, puke-o-rama.
But! The show's cast really helps to make some of the bumpier tonal shifts in "Pilot" work. Which brings us back to Lange, I think. She's so good, Dennis, isn't she? I mean, she's so good that you can really read a shrewd intelligence in an itty-bitty pause. I'm thinking of when she gives Vivien a bushel (A packet? A container? A stick?) of sage. And she says, "It's sage; for cleansing the...spirits in the house." The inflection in Lange's pause suggests not only hesitation but comic disgust too. All in a freaking pause! Wow.
Anyway, anyway, anyway. What do you think about the cast and the show's sense of humor? And about Lange, too?