Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: American Horror Story: Murder House (2011-12)

My first review of a TV show! Hope this goes well...

American Horror Story: Murder House (2011-12)

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Say what you will about Ryan Murphy, the "it" television producer of the last five years or so, but his set of talents is very diverse. He is responsible for the medical drama Nip/Tuck, the musical teen dramedy Glee, and the prime time sitcom The New Normal. For all I know, right now he could be outlining his idea for a period costume drama in the vein of Downton Abbey or a TV adaptation of Mass Effect, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. As of now, the show of his that's garnering the most attention and consistent acclaim is American Horror Story, one of a number of hit shows (including The Walking DeadDexterTrue Blood, and others) that has brought the horror genre to television in a big way in the last few years. Long considered a sanitized domain compared to film thanks to the need to prevent young children from accidentally tuning in to The Jeffrey Dahmer Power Hour, the rise of specialty cable networks that don't have to abide by the FCC's restrictions has allowed television to enter a new golden age of creativity, with genres like horror and crime taking off in ways that the broadcast networks can't touch.

And if this show is the first of a new wave for horror TV, then bring it on!

The first season of AHS, now known retroactively as Murder House to keep with the idiosyncratic naming of each season (season 2 is called AHS: Asylum), is unlike most American TV shows in that it has a set beginning and end rather than continuing its story from one season to the next. Latinos and Brits should be intimately familiar with this style, given that this is the format of many Latin American telenovelas (though with fewer episodes) and that it's customary for British shows to have very short seasons of 6-10 episodes apiece. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a similar setup, with one overarching villain per season, without getting too tied up in continuity. All in all, I can definitely say I'm a fan of this style, since it makes shows easier to rewatch, makes it easier for the writers to plot a full story arc rather than let it slowly spiral out of control (The X-Files and Lost, anyone?), and gives new viewers more incentive to watch the show both when it starts (there's not as much to fear in the way of it getting canceled) and when a new season begins (they don't have to get caught up). Had even one of the sci-fi mystery shows that followed in Lost's wake attempted to do this, then I don't think the sci-fi genre on television would've burned itself out as quickly.

But that wouldn't mean much at all if the show itself wasn't a good viewing experience. Having watched the entire season and rewatched the first half of it, I can say that this show is not just good, but excellent. It has a very strong cast of interesting, well-rounded characters played by solid performers, and a plot that clearly had some thought put into it and which wraps up in a way that might not satisfy everybody (my mom was certainly disappointed with the ending), but which certainly doesn't take the easy way out.

At the center of the family is the Harmons, parents Ben and Vivien (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) and their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). The show pulls you into their story and their problems right away, getting you invested in their attempts to get the hell out of the infamous "Murder House" and its ghostly inhabitants. Next door, we get the wicked Virginian matriarch Constance, who has her own agenda with the Murder House. While the entire cast ranges from solid to great, Jessica Lange as Constance is the standout, her Southern hospitality masking a mean streak that makes her the closest thing the show has to a real villain. Lange was clearly enjoying every minute of Constance's scheming in front of the camera, and it's no surprise that she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance -- or that she returned for Asylum and will be coming back for the third season. Same goes for Evan Peters as the teen sociopath Tate, who manages to convey both menace and a sort of "troubled, misunderstood heartthrob" likability that allowed me to believe that Violet was falling for him -- making him that much more tragic a character.

However, the show isn't content to let its spirits be the usual horror movie monsters. Nearly all of them are developed and acted just as well as the living, from Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears' loveless gay couple Chad and Patrick, to Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge as the housemaid Moira who appears as an old lady to most but appears as her younger, sexier self to the adulterous Ben, to Lily Rabe and Matt Ross as the original owners of the house, Nora and Charles Montgomery, who are indirectly responsible for much of the mess that the house has become. As the ranks of the living are whittled down and join the deceased over the course of the series, a good game that emerges is to guess who is still alive and who is actually a ghost; I loved going back through the show and spotting the clues as to who was actually dead all along.

(Side note: kudos to the writers for creating, with Chad and Patrick, a gay couple that is neither disgustingly stereotypical nor overly idealized. They're unhappy in love, yes, but their problems are wholly "normal married couple" problems like money, wanting children, and a lack of passion. Either Chad or Patrick could have been swapped out with a Charlotte or a Patricia, and the dynamic would've been largely the same.)

Finally, the show remembers that it is, first and foremost, a (*ahem*) horror story. It's still unusual to see the kind of dark places this show goes anywhere on television, especially on a basic cable network like FX that relies on advertiser money. If you're watching just for the violence, the sex, the monsters, or the creepy Rubber Man, you'd be missing a lot of what makes this show great, but you'd also get what you came to see. It greatly augments the show's atmosphere, lending it a very dark tone that makes it feel more like its big-screen inspirations. The screen may be small, but the screams won't be -- AHS is as effective at building tension as any classic horror film.

Score: 5 out of 5

It's weird as hell, and the ending will probably divide viewers, but this is up there with some of the best horror television ever made. Do not overlook this show. Look it up on Netflix, buy the box set, just watch it already, won't you? Or else you're gonna get it. You're gonna get it... you're gonna get it...

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