AMERICAN HORROR STORY: First Thoughts on FX’s Dull New Excuse to Say Naughty Words

American Horror Story (2011) – “Pilot” – Starring Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Dennis O’Hare, Frances Conroy, Alex Breckenridge, Jamie Brewer, and Jessica Lange.

It was nice of FX to debut a new horror show just in time for Horror Month here at the Anxiety, but unfortunately the first episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY is an absolute piece of sophomoric dullness that’s not shocking, not sexy, and decidedly not scary.

There’s a multitude of problems attached to STORY, but let’s start with the biggest: the story. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) cheats on his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) with one of his college students, and so to make things better they move from the Greatest City in America (Boston) to the Most Superficial City in America (Los Angeles), where they buy a haunted house so Ben jerk off in front of a window overlooking the backyard and Vivien can be threatened by the “mongoloid” (her mom’s words) next door.

Woo-hoo! Sign me up for 13 episodes of that!

STORY feels like a pastiche of worn out horror cliches: we’ve got the haunted house, a monster lurking in the basement, creepy shots POV shots from hidden locations at our protagonists, body parts in jars, kitchen cabinet doors opening on their own, a couple of creepy twins, creepy past residents of the house, historical bad happenings in the house, and a whole lot of bad decision making.

Let’s start at the end: if people make smart decisions, lame horror stories fall apart. Lucky for us, the Harmons (especially Ben) are completely full of bad decisions just waiting to burst out onto our television screens. For starters, there’s the matter of the house they buy, which is “twice the house for half the price” or some nonsense and like complete idiots they buy the house anyway, even after the real estate agent tells them there was a murder-suicide by the previous owners. They don’t look around for houses, they don’t consider other options, they just buy it because their daughter says they’ll take it. So far, their decision is at least understandable, but after Vivien is threatened by the next door neighbor Constance’s (Jessica Lange) daughter Addy (Jamie Brewer), who tells her she’ll die in this room, and after Ben is told by another former owner of the house that he burned his entire family to death because the house made him do it AND tells him that he was sleepwalking, too, and after their daughter Violet lures a schoolgirl into the basement where Ben’s patient Tate and some creepy monster do a number on her, Ben, Viven, and Violet never say, “Hey, you know, I don’t believe in any of that Amityville Horror stuff, but let’s get the f*ck out of here anyway and try Rutland, Vermont.”

No, they can’t discuss anything because they’re too busy being self-absorbed.

Ben is a complete tool. Not only does he cheat on his wife after she had a miscarriage, not only does he constantly seem to think of his wife only with his dick, but, as I mentioned, he thinks it’s a good idea to rub one out in front of a big window after he sees the hot new housekeeper (Alex Breckenridge) cleaning. And by cleaning I mean playing with herself in a room where Ben is sure to see her.

The housekeeper is the one interesting part of the show. To everyone but Ben, she appears as an older woman (Frances Conroy), but to Ben, she’s a smoking hot redhead who dresses like she’s playing “Maid #3” in a Maxim photo shoot and tries to seduce him. Now, Ben is in hot water because he was caught “piledriving” a student (Viven’s phrase) back in Beantown, but he thinks it’s perfectly cool when Viven wants to not only hire a hot new temptress but then says nothing when the new maid tries to screw him in his office.

Which, by the way, Violet sees, but she doesn’t say anything and Ben doesn’t say anything and, you know, if I got the feeling that STORY was going to be about how self-absorption allows crazy bad stuff to happen, I might be intrigued, but there’s nothing in this episode to make me think the real interest on the producers’ part is to make great characters and take them on a journey. Twin Peaks wasn’t awesome because Bob was the scariest f*cking thing my teenage brain had ever seen; Twin Peaks was awesome because creepy ass Bob was not only externally scaring the crap out of me, but internally doing damage to some really interesting characters.

Because whatever tricks and shocks and fancy editing and cool visuals you throw up on the screen, I still need great characters to keep me interested and STORY doesn’t have any of them, yet.

Instead, STORY seems more interested in being creepy for creepy’s sake. Right, spooky basement, we get it. It’s 2011, you know. If you can’t find a director to film a good spooky basement sequence, it’s probably because you refuse to hire someone other than your 12-year old nephew. There’s whatever monster is living down there, but the fact that it is a creepy monster makes it decidedly not scary. You know what is scary? Bob was scary. Not because he looked like a dolled up Nosferatu, but because he looked real. Here, there’s all kinds of tricks with editing and lighting and blah blah blah. Combined with all the swearing and gimp-screwing, the first episode of STORY gives off the impression that it isn’t going to be about much more than an excuse to do things the networks can’t or won’t do. Aren’t we beyond this?

Oh, did I mention gimp-screwing? That’s right. There’s a man or ghost or Ben dressed in a gimp suit who screws (and likely impregnates) Viven after she finally gives in to having sex with her cheating husband again. And the sex scene is supposed to be creepy because there had been a gimp suit in the attic that Viv ordered Ben to throw out. Which he did. And now it’s back! And it wants to have sex with Connie Britton!

That’s not creepy. That’s understandable.

The silliest/stupidest part of STORY is Ben’s patient Tate. Ben is a psychiatrist and has decided to see patients in the house because he’s a big fan of The Cosby Show. I mean, because it allows him to spend more time with the family. So he has this kid Tate as his first and only client and he meets with him a couple times and each time the kid ends up hanging with his daughter. Oh, and why is Tate seeing a shrink? Because he has violent fantasies about dressing up as Skeletor and killing his classmates. And yet he seemingly has full run of the house. Doesn’t Ben, I don’t know, escort his only patient outside?

Nope. Why? Well, because he’s a self-absorbed douche, that’s why.

Now, I’m just looking at the first episode, so perhaps some of the story elements that seem so cliche here will improve, but I won’t be sticking around to find out, as much as I like Jessica Lange and Connie Britton. If I hear good things, I’ll check back, but there’s little to nothing in this first episode that makes me want to stick around. AMERICAN HORROR STORY throws a lot of sex and horror on the screen but it doesn’t take the time to create believable characters for me to give a crap what happens to them.

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