Season One of American Horror Story was retroactively named (Murder House) and a huge, huge hit for FX. It is hilariously not-good, and also not very scary. It was like a mean-spirited R-rated remake of Beetlejuice, but with the horrible yuppies being the lead characters, and also the nice dead couple aren’t nice and are serial killers. Plus Ryan Murphy obviously loved Lars Van Trier’s The Kingdom (Riget) a lot, because he borrows shamelessly. Some good acting though.
Kate Mara almost single-handed saved the season every-time she appears. She is possibly the first performer to realize the whole thing is a campy farce. Denis O’Hare is great. Jessica Lange is great. Taissa Farmiga is great. Jamie Brewer is great. I hear that Connie Britton was great on Friday Night Lights. She is also in this. Dylan McDermott is also here. Zachary Quinto shows up, and I wish he was in more of it.
Lily Rabe and Matt Ross have a fantastically overwrought plot line that seems like it is important, but I can barely remember anything of it other than that Wojciech Kilar’s great theme “The Hunters” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula plays whenever they show up and feels so hilariously out of place that I kept giggling. I’m pretty sure these two actors were in on the joke, because the scenery was in danger and I enjoyed it- I just don’t remember it.
Mena Suvari turns up and isn’t sure why. Morris Chestnut comes round and is charismatic as hell, but to no purpose. Sarah Paulson appears, doesn’t do anything, but decides to stick around for the next four seasons. (these are probably the 3 leading candidates for “Most Misused/under-utilized cast member on AHS” in S1)
Murder House is worth checking out if you are a horror movie fan- even a little. It is weird, and mean-spirited, but it is beautifully shot and the actors all try hard to milk something out of the scripts. There are twelve episodes, and it feels like the story maybe could have been told in five or six. There are some actual “horror” moments- a lot of them. In fact there are so many horror moments that it becomes comedic early- at least to me. I’ve been told by a number of people that they found it legitimately involving, scary, etc. I laugh. Ha-ha-ha!
The first season is a haunted house, and it is haunted by literally every ghost the writers could come up with- no matter how badly the different stories intersect. This is both risible and kind of admirable from a storytelling perspective. S1 could have also been called Ghost House because that is what really sets it apart from what would come later, whereas all the seasons are pretty much dripping with murder- murder and sexual creepiness are the fall-backs of AHS. If you don’t handle sexual assault and shock-deviancy, do not apply.
Season one ends on such an insanely misguided, weird note, that I kind of fell in love with the whole season retroactively. The final episode being tonally jarring and kind of insane from a story-telling perspective will become a AHS tradition.
After season 1, I was ready to embrace AHS. I had it figured- I wouldn’t really care, I could notice all the references to horror movies good and bad, laugh at the ham-handed plot stretching (Connie Britton says the line: “I think maybe I should leave this house” utterly blankly, multiple times, because the story needs her to not leave the fucking house), and generally enjoy the future of American Horror Story.
Season Two American Horror Story: Asylum is both more horrific, and less slapdash than it’s predecessor. I like to believe that Ryan Murphy was too busy with The New Normal and Glee so that Tim Minear did most of the heavy lifting on this season. I might be wrong, but it makes it possible for me to explain why this season worked so well. Your mileage may vary.
The season starts out strong, because asylums for the criminally insane are terrifying and terrible, and in the 1960s homosexuality was still viewed as a psychological abnormality. ASH is not a show with sensitivity. Yet many of the actors, especially Sarah Paulson (wasted in the first season, cut loose here), manage to treat their lurid, potboiler plots with sensitivity and grace- it is kind of amazing.
Evan Peters- who was also very good in season 1- is very good here. Lizzy Brochere is great. Sarah Paulson is super great. Jessica Lange is magnificent- and this season is vital to the plot, instead of just being Ryan Murphy’s muse. Also Jessica Lange SINGS and it is glorious. Lily Rabe is great until she isn’t, and then she is still having fun. James Cromwell is great (duh). Zachary Quinto is great. Joseph Fiennes is… well, he’s there, at least some of the time.
Chloe Sevigny hangs around for a while and does what she can with what she is given- she managed to make a pretty one-sketch character feel fully fleshed out and interesting. Ian McShane and Franka Potente both show up for 2 episodes and OMG THEY ARE BOTH SO GOOD. I don’t think their plot-lines even intersect but goddamn they are good.
Clea Duvall shows up and is fine, but, I’m pretty sure she is the only possible nominee for the AHS: Most Misused/Underutilized Cast Member award in Season 2, which shows how strong this season is.
There is a serial killer or two, systematic abuses, demonic possession and exorcisms, wrongful imprisonment, a fucking concentration camp doctor, the horrors of electroshock therapy (the show tries to milk some horror from hydrotherapy, fails miserably), a murderous Santa, an angel of death (like, literally- a death angel that only the dying can see and holy shit it is kind of magnificently nuts, especially since it is Frances Conroy), cannibal mutants, a murder legacy, a satanic nun and alien abduction. Oh, and a totes random “Murderous Moppet” evil kid who shows up, does some murder and leaves because jesus fucking christ the show is overstuffed enough already.
There is also a musical sequence that might be the single best musical sequence I have ever seen on television, because not only does it work within the story and thematically, but also the actors sell it in the best possible way.
Season 2 also has one of the greatest “OH HOLY SHIT NO WAY SERIOUSLY? OMG HAHAHAHA I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WENT THERE!” moments EVER. Just… Anne Frank. I’m serious you guys. When the show went to Anne Frank, I was over the moon in love with the audacity.
And the last episode are too… I just. I don’t have the words. It seemed to jump the rails entirely, ending all the main plots in episode 11 but KEEPS GOING for two more episodes, with a very out-of-place Big Love plotline that ends abruptly and then ties together thematically the whole season, also dealing with the modern-day wraparound that has been plaguing the season since the beginning of episode one, and somehow ending on a grace note that actually works kind of brilliantly.
Asylum is like a Cirque de Soleil high-wire act- so brazen and impossible that it Can’t Work, and then sticks the ending. I loved it. Season 2 of AHS made me SO EXCITED for Season 3, I could barely stand it.
Then came American Horror Story: Coven and our love soured.
How do you solve a problem like Ryan Murphy? How do you get the creative hyper kid to stop shouting for attention and focus on his work? Maybe I gave him too much attention with Asylum He had somehow made a great season of television that was primarily about two women, one guilty, one innocent, and told their interweaving stories as both lived and made mistakes- all in a topsy-turvy, hyper-violent horror show- until they had kind of changed places. Then he decided to make subtext text, instead of telling the stories of Two awesome women, he’d do a whole passel of ’em! Witches! Girl Power! Women are strong! Magic is power- power corrupts. That is the nutshell, basic concept of S3. That and “Do NOT let Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk anywhere near racial politics”.
When s2 had a character announce they were Anne Frank, I was blown away with the audacity. But the pain of the holocaust was never ignored- with an Evil Nazi Surgeon reminding viewers of real life horrors, it still never felt glossed over or cheap and exploitative- which is a STRANGE THING to say about a Ryan Murphy show.
But the handling of Race on AHS: Coven is HUGELY problematic.
A very promising cast. Jessica Lange is… less great than previously? Sarah Paulson is back again, also with diminishing returns. Evans Peters should have sat this season out. Taissa Farmiga is back- which is great, except they keep forgetting to do anything with her. Emma Roberts is great. Lilly Rabe is mostly great. Gabourey Sidibe is great. Angela Basset is ALWAYS great, even here, where she is given virtually nothing to do other than one truly amazing moment ending in one of the greatest on-screen laughs ever.
Kathy Bates is… an actress who I admire and respect very much and would rather not discuss in the context of Coven. Jamie Brewer is back and is good. Denis O’Hare is Riff-Raff. Frances Conroy IS HERE AND DOING SOMETHING WONDERFUL that belongs somewhere else entirely. Stevie Nicks shows up and it is kind of embarrassing once, and then she shows up again and it is trying to reach the fever-pitch brilliance of Jessica Lange singing the Name Game, fails miserably, and should probably be forgotten.
Danny Huston, an actor I enjoy greatly, shows up and does some great work that has zero impact. He might be the Most Misused/Underutilized Cast Member in S3, but so might Angela Basset, Gabourey Sidibe, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters (Seriously, dude, you couldn’t go do something else for a few weeks?) Jamie Brewer- OH WAIT, I forgot that Patti LuPone was cast in order to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Patti LuPone, the very great, is in this. It is embarrassing how little impact she has on anything. Patti LuPone: Wins without question despite all the many, many runners-up. Sorry, Patti, you might be the winner. But then Kathy Bates might even be the winner of the MMMUCM award, because if you deleted her character from the series NOTHING would change. If you cut all of her scenes? Nothing would really be different. Delphine LaLurie, a society woman and a serial killer, is diluted into set dressing.
The season starts off with a direct remake of the Rogue storyline from Bryan Singer’s X-Men but with Taissa Farmiga as Rogue and she has a murder pussy. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it makes me to type that? Murder Pussy. (great band name, please only for a women-led band, please?) I guarantee you the writers on Coven were excited about this. Then they promptly forget about the MP after three episodes. At it’s core, Coven isn’t a horror show, despite the witches and tortured slaves and witch-hunters and bloody deaths- it isn’t horrific, it is an R-rated fantasy series, with more of a super-hero movie in it’s DNA than horror movies.
You see, in Coven the writers couldn’t figure out how Magic worked. All of the Witches who go to Witch School (no I’m not joking) each have a single, inherent, unique power. Only as the series continues none of their powers are unique and they all learn new powers and sometimes learning new powers means they are becoming more powerful and sometimes it is just because the writers got stuck and sometimes oh shut up I hate you Coven. Shades of Harry Potter, shades of X-Men, Jessica Lange wants to stay young forever, girls just wanna have fun. It isn’t BAD. But it isn’t good. What is bad is the use of Voodoo based magic as the magic black women practice, and “white witch” magic as what, um, white women practice.
Hey, Ryan Murphy? STOP IT. JUST STOP IT. The race stuff. It is. You know what? I’m a white guy. I cannot speak for people of color, but I can tell Ryan Murphy to knock it the fuck off. Because the writing is terrible whenever a character speaks about race- Murphy treats it with the same flip nastiness he treats everything, and that ain’t ok. Also, the fat jokes.
When I first heard Coven would deal with Delphine LaLurie, slavery, Voodoo, the Axeman of New Orleans, and rural folk magic, I was super stoked. That is my kind of stuff! Except those are all real things that actually happened. And the show deals with each of those ideas with the sensitivity and care of a seven year old hopped up on sugar attacking a Spongebob Pinata with a morning star.
By the end of Coven, I literally didn’t care anymore. It took me like a week to watch the last episode, in segments, because I didn’t care. Every time the story took one step forward, it took two steps back. Literally. Lily Rabe has the power to raise the dead! Now she is dead! Now she is alive! Now everyone else can raise the dead! Now Lily Rabe is dead! No seriously, for real this time! Just because! Then Sarah Paulson gets blinded, then she gains a magical Sight, then she gets new eyes, then she stabs out her new eyes to get the magic Sight back, then she has new eyes again. Frances Conroy is burned at the stake, then resurrected, then burned at the stake again. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?
I’m not lying about this. The less said about ghosts and their “rules” in Coven the better. I quit drinking before I started the AHS project (unrelated), and thinking about the storytelling of Coven makes me want to start again.
The potential for Coven was so great, the talent assembled enormous. Moments and ideas were fantastic. But ultimately it was a weak-sauce power struggle (where most of the characters weren’t struggling for power few of them wanted), with a “Women Be Bitches, amiright?” sort of high-grade misogyny woven through stories that SHOULD have been and COULD have been empowering. Also the bastardization of Voodoo (Baron Samedi shows up but is called Papa Legba and is apparently The Devil, or at least takes people to hell, because fuck you Ryan Murphy why use Google when writing about a real religion?)
I almost didn’t continue. But I preserved. Much like that time I read all 4 Twilight books. I did it for you.
Season 4 American Horror Story: Freak Show could have salvaged the AHS name. It didn’t. It WAS an improvement on Coven, but not enough of one. Not nearly enough.
It has a cast of fine actors Jessica Lange is back again and wearing out her welcome. Michael Chiklis joins the cast and is very good. Denis O’Hare is back, great. Emma Roberts is back, and as good as she can be in an underwritten, flip-flopping part. Evan Peters is back, mostly good. Kathy Bates is back, doing a credible old Baltimore accent. Angela Bassett is back and great. Finn Witrock (what a name!) almost single-handedly saves the show as the stealth villain. Grace Gummer is here, very good (but strangely forgotten for several episodes). John Carrol Lynch is great. Patti LaBelle is WONDERFUL. Frances Conroy is very good, but very underused. Sarah Paulson is wonderful as conjoined twins. Funny and sweet and sad.
AHS: Freakshow isn’t a horror show. It is a lurid melodrama about a Freak Show, with some very bloody murder and in-your-face sexual “perversions”. There are some wonderful performers in the actual “freaks” of the freak show. Matt Fraser as Paul the Illustrated Seal is fantastic. Amazon Eve and Ma Petite and Legless Suzy are all memorable, fascinating characters. I really wish they had been fully developed and given more to do. Instead we watch Jessica Lange sing anachronistic David Bowie songs (the series is set in the 1950s) because FUCK YOU RYAN MURPHY. Also Glee. Fuck Glee.
Most Misused/Underutilized Cast Member could be Gabourey Sidibe, Frances Conroy, ALL of the actors with disabilities, or possibly Grace Gummer whose character of a candy-striper who joins the Freak Show against her wishes and ends up loving it there felt like the seasons lead, but was relegated to a bunch of tagged on scenes
The hardest part, amidst the wasted potential, (Neil Patrick Harris as a shell-shocked former GI who lives vicariously through his ventriloquist dummy, played by Jamie Brewer? Hell yes! But why so tagged on?) is watching able-bodied Evan Peters, all heart-throb handsome, with his FX lobster-claw hands, bemoaning “We aren’t freaks! we’re regular people!” while actors with actual disabilities stand behind him.
Wow. Stay classy, AHS.
There is a murder clown, a freak show, a wonderful mythology about a Halloween curse on freak shows (using historical figure Edward Modrake and casting a game Wes Bentley- this part, the gothic horror part, is great), and… a lot of melodrama. Eventually Ryan Murphy remembers that he saw Tod Browning’s Freaks once and that it is why he did this whole fucking thing, so most of an episode becomes a retread of the finale of Freaks.
For the most part, it is a Douglas Sirk melodrama. “A three-breasted Hermaphrodite Visits the Doctor! Who is NOT Judgmental and Terrible!” is an interesting piece of character business. It is also the only part of the entire season I was wishing there was more of. This is melodrama stuff- “Someone who doesn’t fit in, finds a place where they do!” isn’t horror, it’s melodrama. Nothing against melodrama, but I didn’t decide to binge-watch American Melodrama Show.
One of the hardest things to get around in Freak Show – other than the anachronistic songs- is the use of Jessica Lange. Her character feels like a bad combination of her season 2 and 3 characters, without any of the interesting aspects. She’s a manipulative, evil woman (s3), delusional and power mad (s2) and doesn’t get her comeuppance. In fact, the series seems to think that we view her as the heroine- or at least the tragic protagonist. Except by the time Freak Show creaked to an end, I was so tired of her. So. Tired. Also of the anachronistic songs. So tired.
I understand Jessica Lange is taking off Season 5, Hotel, which is probably retreading a lot of ground since we’ve had ghosts in 3 of 4 seasons, and lots of murder and sexual assault because the writer’s room is convinced that = edgy. I don’t blame Lange for taking a season off. I’m sure Sarah Paulson will be one of the good things on it, unless she has no character (like in s1 or s3). I bet the number of actors eligible for the Most Misused/Underutilized Cast Member will be even bigger.
I might watch Hotel down the line, in a year. But I might not. The pain of missed opportunity, of squandered chances, is too great.
Fuck you, Ryan Murphy. You win.