The Light from the TV Shows: Getting Your Scare On with “American Horror Story”

The Television Critics Association press tour is always an exciting opportunity to mingle with my TV critic peers, meet and greet with the individuals involved in the latest and greatest (and otherwise) new series, and get the scoop on what we’ll all be seeing on the small screen over the course of the subsequent six months. This summer’s tour was the first time I didn’t subsequently write up my recollections of the event – my only excuse lies in the lyrics of John Lennon: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – but had I pulled together a list of highlights, one of them certainly would have been that I had the opportunity to head over to the 20th Century Fox lot and attend a special advance press screening of the pilot episode of FX’s “American Horror Story.”

Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were in attendance to introduce the pilot, along with cast member Connie Britton, and, as is par for the course for series creators when they’re standing in front of an audience of TV critics, Murphy and Falchuk seemed as excited for us to see the episode as they were nervous to learn what we thought of it. Indeed, unless they were skulking in the back of the auditorium, they didn’t stick around to witness our reactions to the events unfolding onscreen, let alone to hear any of our discussions after the closing credits had rolled.

It should come as no surprise to learn that critical reaction was mixed – I mean, that’s pretty much a given for any new series, right? – but if there was one recurring theme to the many conversations going on about “American Horror Story” during our post-screening dinner, it was that a great number of the people who wouldn’t necessarily commit to actually liking what they’d seen were at least willing to concede that it was going to stay near the forefront of their thoughts for quite some time to come…which, as it happens, is where I was with the show, too.

If you’ve seen the pilot, you can probably appreciate my position: it’s creepy, disconcerting, and, yes, there are a few legitimate scares amidst the cheap but effective made-ya-jump moments, but it’s also full of a multitude of horror tropes and plot devices, including (but not limited to) a haunted house, gory murders, ghostly apparitions, eccentric neighbors, a sinister stranger delivering a warning of impending tragedy, and a pregnancy possibly brought about by evil forces.

Was it memorable? Absolutely. Did it make an impact? I dare say it did: even though I didn’t know if I liked it, I already couldn’t wait to watch it again. Was it sufficiently intriguing for me to want to seek out a second episode? You better believe it. But even with these things said, in addition to getting the feeling that Murphy and Falchuk were throwing things against the wall to see what stuck, I was also left with nagging uncertainty about where the hell they were going with this thing.

Now that I’m six episodes into the proceedings, I’m far more confident about the situation, but I won’t lie to you: it was a little bit touch-and-go for a bit.

Not that there hasn’t consistently been plenty of horror in “American Horror Story,” and the back story of the house that was bought by the Harmon family – husband Ben (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton), and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) – has continued to grow almost as quickly as the number of problems the Harmons are having to deal with, but what of the Harmons themselves? They aren’t exactly the deepest characters on TV. Ben’s a cheating louse of a husband, Vivien scores our sympathy because she had a miscarriage, and Violet is your typical sullen teenager. It was entertaining to see the strange and unexplained events going on in their house, but without seeing more sides of the characters, I kept wondering how much sympathy I was going to be able to muster for the Harmons.

For me, the turning point came with last week’s episode, the second part of the show’s Halloween saga. Not only did we finally start to get the true story of Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), thereby giving both Peters and Farmiga a chance to shine, but we also saw the further disintegration of the Harmons’ marriage, and, perhaps most surprisingly, the character of Constance (Jessica Lange) is actually becoming a sympathetic figure. There’s no doubt in my mind that Lange was already in position to score an Emmy nod for her work on this show, but given the way they’re fleshing out Constance in a big way, I’m now betting on her taking the trophy home with her.

It might seem easy enough to lump “American Horror Story” in with the other “scary” shows on the air at the moment – I’m looking at you, “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead” – but whether you love or hate the work that Murphy and Falchuk are doing here, you have to admit that it’s definitely in a category of its own.

In closing, I thought I’d throw out a couple of “American Horror Story”-related moments from the TCA tour, starting with my brief encounter with Dylan McDermott during Fox’s all-star party. Not entirely unsurprisingly, he couldn’t stop expressing his excitement about the series.

“As an actor, you pray for those great directors to come along, and Ryan Murphy is one of those directors,” he said. “He really got me. We just had this simpatico with this project. But, you know, I love that world of horror, too – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and all that – and the whole ‘what’s real, what’s unreal’ thing is just fascinating to me. But in a funny way, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I want to go script by script. I trust Ryan’s vision. A lot of actors were afraid of the nudity and the sexuality, but it didn’t scare me.”

* Denis O’Hare, who, given his makeup, you may or may not recognize from his work on “True Blood,” was also giddy about what he’d done on the series thus far, although he admitted that he didn’t really even know much of what his future on the show would hold when he first got there.

“Ryan called and asked if I wanted to read the script, and I said, ‘Absolutely!’” he said. “And then I read it and loved, and he said, ‘Would you be interested in doing it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, bring me on!’ He didn’t really know what he was going to with my character at the time, though. He was still kind of figuring it out. So when I came on board, I was just Larry the Burn Guy. That’s what they called him. He didn’t even have a last name. They basically just gave me his plot: he’s a figure who’s hanging around the house because he was involved in a tragedy, he has this kind of symbiotic relationship with the house and the inhabitants within it, and he desperately wants to save them from going down the same path he did. The make-up’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? I think it’s one of the more shocking things I’ve seen in a long time…and I love it!”

Lastly, during the “American Horror Story” panel, Murphy offered up a few words that, fingers crossed, will put you a bit more at ease when it comes to concerns about how the season will play out:

“To me, the pilot of a show is a blueprint, and I always love when pilots have a lot of characters and a lot of story. That being said, I think when you have actors like this, you have an obligation to write them really good, emotional, grounded stories, which we are doing. I think people will come to this, hopefully, for two things: for really good emotional stories that are zeitgeist based, and because there really will be some scary stuff in there. But we do know where it’s going, we do know what that great last episode is, and I think it’s very unexpected and exciting.”


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