Review: American Horror Story 1×1-1×2

Every American horror story ever, all in one go

American Horror Story

In the US: Wednesdays, 10pm, FX
In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, FX UK. Starts November 7th

A new horror show from the creators of Glee!

Yes, Glee. Psyched now? Of course, not.

But then, when Glee was announced as a charming new show from the creators of Nip/Tuck about a High School glee club, there was a similar reaction, so let’s just say “a new horror show from the creators of Nip/Tuck” and take it from there.

Anyway, American Horror Story is something of a misnomer in that it’s not just one horror story, it’s actually every single American horror story ever, more or less, particularly the ones from the movies: there’s The Amityville Horror, Psycho, The Shining, Don’t Look Now, Rosemary’s Baby and more, all rolled up into one big story in which Dylan McDermott (The Practice, Dark Blue) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) move into a spectacularly haunted house in LA with their teenage daughter and have to deal with everything from a two-faced maid, ghosts and a weird melted man who murdered his family to a gimp and a boy who might also be a demon.

And the theme of this big story? What do the creators of Nip/Tuck and Glee think is the ultimate ‘American Horror Story’? Family – and sex, apparently, and plenty of it.

Here’s a trailer:

American Horror Story revolves around the Harmons, a family of three who moved from Boston to Los Angeles as a means to reconcile past anguish. The all-star cast features Dylan McDermott as “Ben Harmon,” a psychiatrist; Connie Britton as “Vivien Harmon,” Ben’s wife; Taissa Farmiga as “Violet,” the Harmon’s teenage daughter; Jessica Lange in her first-ever regular series TV role as “Constance,” the Harmon’s neighbor; Evan Peters plays “Tate Langdon,” one of Ben’s patients; and Denis O’Hare as “Larry Harvey.” Guest stars for the series include Frances Conroy as the Harmon’s housekeeper; Alexandra Breckenridge as the Harmon’s housekeeper; and Jamie Brewer as Constance’s daughter.

The pilot episode of American Horror Story, shot in Los Angeles, was written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, and it was directed by Murphy. In addition to Murphy and Falchuk, Dante Di Loreto will also serve as Executive Producer of the series. American Horror Story is produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television.

Is it any good?
The show doesn’t seem to have the confidence to know what it’s doing, so much is thrown at the screen. The show does have the occasional moment of fright, but these are mostly directorial choices, involving strobe lighting and things in the background caught out the corner of your eye. But it also has plenty of moments of inadvertent comedy, moments when there’s a knowing wink to the audience and moments that just don’t work. There’s no real coherence – everything just sort of leaps from scene to scene, each scene having a completely different tone and style to the previous one.

So Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton move from Boston to LA to put their old lives behind them. They move into a house where there’s been multiple murders and is full of disturbed art. Next door, Jessica Lange lives with her Down Syndrome daughter, who keeps telling people they’re going to be murdered. There’s a red-headed maid who looks like Frances Conroy to Britton but who looks like Alex Breckenridge in stockings to McDermott (at least she had a good reason for that red hair after all), forcing him to go off and wank naked while crying to get it out of his system. He does a lot of naked wank-crying – told you there was some inadvertent comedy.

Meanwhile, teenage daughter Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of Vera Farmiga from Up In The Air and Touching Evil) is having trouble with the mean girls at school and after hitting it off with one of dad’s patients, invites the ringleader down to the basement where she gets demon-attacked by the boy. Who might be a demon. Or something.

Is all of this making sense yet? Really? Because it shouldn’t. There’s no real interconnection at the moment, no real explanation for why any of this is happening. Largely, you’re supposed to be puzzling along, trying to work out how this mad jumble of horror jigsaw pieces fits together. But imagine a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and you’ve only got eight of the middle bits – how invested are you going to be in putting that puzzle together?

Unfortunately, it’s also such a confused mess that even if you find one thing frightening, the next moment you’ll be laughing at Alex Breckenridge pleasuring herself, thus naturally forcing McDermott to go off for a naked wank-cry, or wondering why Connie Britton is being raped by a gimp she thinks is her husband without complaining about the hygiene of putting on an old gimp costume that’s probably been up in the attic for years and is full of the gods know what.

Indeed, a lot of the horror is sexual in nature: the horror of a crumbling marriage, the horror of an affair that just won’t go away, the horror of sexual violence (against women – never men, of course), the horror of ‘wrong’ attraction and so on. And if you don’t find those things horrifying, you’ll be asked to find every single horror trope under the sun frightening instead, from the opening titles based on those of Se7en right down to the music of Psycho being played during a stabbing.

Of the two episodes so far, episode one was more interesting, episode two failing largely to advance the story much at all, beyond letting us know that weird things are afoot. Indeed, while episode one did at least grab the attention, episode two was mostly yawn-inducing, with just a few moments to really grab the attention.

If the producers and writers can settle down and focus, rather than go ADHD with their references, American Horror Story does have the potential to be a good show. The main cast, bar McDermott, are all good, as is the direction. The mystery presented is tantalising. But at the moment, though, it’s a show that’s trying too hard to be all possible frightening things to all possible people, but without the nerve not to wink at the audience and say “Bet you know where this is from, right?”. And as a result, it’s more silly than frightening.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.