When I last wrote at length on Ryan Murphy—the creator of Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, and now American Horror Story (the last two co-created with Brad Falchuk)—I said, wrongly, that the strong dose of misanthropy that his work introduced into American television had reached the point of diminishing returns. I am happy to be proved wrong—his new show is bracingly bleak in its ironic sentimentality, its witty mayhem, and its utterly sardonic deconstruction of all American dreams.
If it had jokes, American Horror Story would be a situation comedy, albeit one with rape, torture, vivisection, and massacre; I suppose you could refer to both it and Murphy's plastic surgery show Nip/Tuck as situation melodramas. You have a simple situation—a house with a history of tragedy, haunted by mostly vengeful ghosts—you dump into it a family already damaged by the husband's banal adultery, and watch how the fracture lines grow and extend. You throw in story lines both bizarre—the medium convinced that her client is pregnant with the Antichrist—and grubbily mundane—the estate agent prepared to tell endless lies to shift items in a down-turning economy. You have moments of grace and consolation, and sudden shocking outbursts of violence. Above all, you know that people who lie to themselves about their own tacky motives will become astonishingly good at not letting themselves notice the bizarre and uncomfortable truths that surround them.
Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) ought to be the perfect couple—a Boston psychiatrist with a vaguely artistic cello-playing wife—and they have a cute, clever, fashionably depressed Goth daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga). In the aftermath of a still birth, Vivien walks in on Ben with one of his students, Hayden (Kate Mara), and part of the deal whereby he persuades her not to leave him is that they move across country to LA and a surprisingly cheap dream house. Ben is another of Ryan Murphy's critical portraits of the straight white American male dream—deeply conventional in his desires and goals, but wanting to have his cake and eat it; we know from earlier Murphy shows, notably from Sean and Christian, the protagonists of Nip/Tuck, that he is going to go through hell and deserve it every step of the way.
Cheap houses always come with a history; that is one of the ways in which horror works. The house Ben buys is a Bad Place that puts the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King's The Shining to shame; even before the credits, we see two young hooligans break in, in spite of the warnings of a neighbour girl with Down's Syndrome, and meet a grisly end at the claws and teeth of what lurks in the cellar. Then there are the credits' sepia prints of ugly babies, a damp nurse's uniform, a pair of bloodstained garden-shears, flashing lights, atonal grinding. This is always going to be one of those stories that does not end well and it occurs to those of us who count the weeks of a show that American Horror Story's finale will appear just before Christmas. Those of us who followed Nip/Tuck will be aware of Murphy's record on Christmas episodes—a tramp dismembered and removed in Santa's sacks, the accidental shooting of Frosty the Snowman—and reflect that it really does not look good for the Harmons.
And then there are the people they meet in LA—Moira, the housekeeper who comes with the house and whom Vivien sees as an old woman (Frances Conroy), Ben as a buxom flirt in a French maid's outfit (Alexandra Breckenridge); Constance, the aging former starlet who knows far too much about the history of their house (Jessica Lange); Tate, Ben's patient, a disturbed young man who dreams of high school massacre and works hard at charming Violet (Evan Peters); Larry, the horribly scarred dying former resident who offers to make himself useful to Ben and keeps his word in the most terrible of ways (Dennis O'Hare). From an early stage we are unsure which of these is alive and which of them is dead, and suspect that most of them are bad news.
And then there is the black latex gimp suit Vivien finds in the attic.
One of the show's strengths comes from Murphy's long-established gift for working with good actors such as O'Hare (last seen ripping out spines in True Blood) and Lange. Sometimes he casts against perceived type—Heroes villain Zachary Quinto has a high old time as the gay home-improving occupant who preceded the Harmons and died in a supposed murder-suicide. Like all the best melodramas, American Horror Story gives its stars a chance to tear a passion to tatters—it is full-blooded wonderful ham and its cast have that underrated attribute, gusto.
There is, of course, the taste issue—some reviewers have complained about the high school massacre subplot, some about the 1920s abortionist to the stars subplot, some about the exploitation of the 1940s Black Dahlia murder. Anyone expecting Ryan Murphy—making a horror show—to be more tasteful and less extreme than he was in Nip/Tuck is clearly delusional. More relevantly, from an early point, when Larry hits Hayden over the head with a shovel, we realize that this is a show in which anything can happen and nobody is safe; we are reminded of this very forcibly in a late episode when there is a genuinely shocking twist relating to Violet and Tate's star-crossed romance we should have seen coming and no one did. Of all cultural responses to Twilight, American Horror Story is perhaps the most scathing.
There is also the question of the point at which misanthopy turns into something more worrying. Vivien and Violet can be a little too much the Women In Peril of Gothic and both Hayden and Constance are nightmarish harpies—a claim could be made that the show panders to misogyny, but equally you can argue that a show with the smug, hypocritical Ben in it is operating an equal opportunities policy. It is similarly robust in its treatment of the Down's Syndrome-afflicted Adelaide (Jamie Brewer)—who is sometimes shown as creepy and annoying, but also with real sympathy and the most poignant of ends to her story line.
At various points, notably the revelation of precisely who it was who had sex with Vivien dressed in the gimp suit, the show veers in a sharkwards direction before managing to convince us that what we thought was psychological implausibility was actually sudden terrible insight into just how disturbed Murphy's characters are. Then we reflect that we are talking about ghosts and monsters and wonder how he has made his puppets so real.
At the end, with its nasty slingshot ending, everything is neatly wrapped up in LA with the Harmons, and Murphy has indicated that season 2 will feature a new location, a new haunted house, and new characters—though a repertory cast of recurring actors playing different people. This is a fascinating idea for how to continue one of the most nastily brilliant and innovative of 2011's new shows.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is the BSFA Award-nominated Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.