Thursday, January 12, 2012

American Horror Story

When I first heard that An American Horror Story was about a haunted house the obvious question was how? How could you fill a season let alone an entire series about a haunted house? Such stories have clear limitations and certainly the creators of Glee don’t have the imagination or abilities to by pass such limitations. As it happens the question of the series was resolved in a press conference where the announcement was made that each season will focus on a different house (and presumably a different cast though wouldn’t it be interesting if they kept the same actors every season but had them play different characters).

Filling the first season was done two ways. The first was to provide a parallel story so as a result we start the show with a family In crisis due to the husband’s infidelity and, it’s hinted, the wife’s dissatisfaction with having given up an artistic career (as a cellist of all things). I’m not sure this was deliberately done to fill the season so much as this is just how TV/film writers work now – characters are given one or two clearly delineated problems. TV writers in particular seem unable to write except in terms of The Family. (Reinforcing this is the flood of screenwriting books and classes, none designed to teach how to write a good script no matter what they claim but only a saleable one.) That this is the case can be shown by the thinness of the characters despite having twelve long episodes to fill – just think of how much more effective even routine films of the 30s or 40s were at creating characters in a mere fragment of this running time.

The issue with starting a horror film with an already damaged family is that it sidetracks the point of the genre which starts from normality then undergoes a disruption before returning to the status quo or something resembling it (the basic arc as well of mysteries and to a different degree romance/melodrama and comedies). In and of itself the show’s change isn’t important but what it means is that there’s already a story there (the broken family) that really doesn’t need the haunted house element and even more to the point it downplays the horror element. It’s one thing to see good people trying to overcome adversity but quite another to watch self-centered unpleasant ones. Where’s the problem? After all as American Horror Story gives us there’s not much tension – a depressed teenaged goth girl with family troubles and uprooted 3000 miles from her home and friends is certainly low-hanging fruit for any evil spirits.

But maybe this is why the creators relied even more on the second method of filling up the season – excess. Rather than a story with a couple of subplots American Horror Story seems determined to throw in everything possible. So we get the usual haunted house creeps and vengeful spirits but a nonstop parade of mass murderers, the victims, arsonists, illegal abortionists, rapist dentists, nosy neighbors, rowdy teenagers, Frankenstein-monster body constructions, deformed children in the attic, even more cheating husbands, malicious twins, a Downs Syndrome woman, a ghost who doesn’t know she’s a ghost. Oh and it goes on – the Black Dahlia, the lost colony of Roanoke, a Southern Gothic mother, a rehash of Beetlejuice (yes really), some elements lifted from Kill Baby Kill (the rolling ball and the house that can’t be escaped), a full-body fetish rubber suit and eventually the, yes, Antichrist. Nearly every episode starts with a flashback scene as well. And though this description almost makes it sound like a black comedy that’s clearly not the point even though it has one of the funniest scenes I saw this year (the ultrasound technician fainting) that seems to have been meant seriously.

At least AHS isn’t boring even though it’s not particularly clever or interesting or even good (in whatever way you want to interpret “good”). The whole thing runs along with stuff happening, stuff not mattering much and lots of people dying. It’s clear that the creators never really thought this through. A major plot point is that ghosts can’t leave the house though we actually see a couple who do. Why? What happens with the so-called Antichrist baby? Why are there so many spirits in this house and why do some hide and some not? Why does the family get a happy ending just because they died? This feels purely created by a perceived need to wrap up the season on a high note rather than anything in the story – after all nothing similar happens to the other spirits and why should the family conflicts be erased just by death? What’s the deal with Jessica Lange’s character living next door? And why would anybody move into a house that’s had so many public murders?

Guess we may never know but then do we much care. (Except maybe for the Entertainment Weekly writer who raved enough in a cover story to claim this might be the strangest TV show ever – clearly someone who hasn’t seen much TV.) I half hope the next season will focus on a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with maybe just a couple of characters – imagine Beckett rewriting The House on the Borderland. But we’ll just get a rehash of the first season which is its own horror story. (See how cleverly I did that? Hollywood call me….)