I love Ryan Murphy.
He doesn’t hold back with his storytelling. Excess and over-the-top ideas are turned on full throttle, often gloriously sending themselves up at the same time as being executing. Whether it’s in Glee, Nip / Tuck or his earlier outing Popular, he isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
As anybody who has followed Glee knows, when it works it’s truly fabulous. When it doesn’t it’s a crumbling mess. Murphy is do or die. His latest offering, American Horror Story is both.
Like a classic Amityville / Poltergeist / Addams Family tale, American Horror Story centres around a family in a spooky house.
Moving in are the Harmon Family, psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Harmon (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and teenage daughter Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmiga). Can we say dysfunctional family? The real estate saleswoman (the wonderful Christine Estabrook) says the LA mansion was restored by its former owners, two gay men who died in a murder / suicide. As you do.
Benjamin and Vivien are attempting a new start, but there is distance between them, while Violet experiences difficulties fitting into her new school and subjects herself to self-harm. Benjamin uses one of the rooms in the expansive house as his consulting rooms, with a teenager Tate (Evan Peters) bordering on psychotic as his principal patient in the opening episode. Crossing lines between the professional and personal, Tate begins a dangerous friendship with Violet.
Get ready for eccentric neighbour Constance (Jessica Lange), full of resentment after a potential Hollywood career never took off, later compounded by the birth of her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who has Down Syndrome. Addy is drawn to the energy of the house, which is excuse enough for Constance to intrude and get nosy.
Then there is an elderly housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy) whose presence unsettles Ben (for reasons that would frankly, be a spoiler). Denis O’Hare plays a previous owner full of dire forebodings. With just a handful of characters, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk set up a volatile universe.
Then there is the style of the piece. The music is often grand, with classical strings from Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo, plus Kill Bill whistling, and Patience and Prudence’s version of Tonight You Belong To Me. The camera sporadically zooms in, creating a sense of unease. The labyrinthine setting feels full of dark secrets and dangerous corners. There are scenes that are flashbacks, dream -or is that nightmare- sequences, and constantly toying between reality/ unreality. Sometimes it’s positively David Lynch…
Britton looks like she will pack a punch in this show, with a role full of bitterness and a ballsy performance. One blazing row between Connie and Ben goes too far in its angst, like an audition scene for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But it’s Jessica Lange who steals the show here, with her sly, twisted neighbour, deftly touched with a hint of a Southern accent. She switches from smiling charmer to vindictive bitch. Love it.
There are just enough spooky moments to give you a thrill, including the demented opening credits that borrow from the True Blood school of Opening Titles.
American Horror Story is bold, sexy, delicious fun that fascinates as much as it perplexes. It’s far from perfect, but there are flashes of brilliance and it arrives with huge potential. Because it’s light years better than a lot of the pedestrian drama we see on the box, this really should be on TEN where it could attract an audience deserving of its bravado. But maybe on ELEVEN the adventurous, discerning viewer will be rewarded. I know I was.
American Horror Story airs 9:30pm Tuesdays on ELEVEN.