Horror in a continuing TV series is a tricky thing. It requires a compelling concept that has to be scary in every episode. The Twilight Zone had some creepy episodes, but mixed horror with science fiction and fantasy; regardless, it was the twist endings and heavy-hitting morality plays that kept people watching. The Night Stalker had a monster of the week, but only lasted a season. Dark Shadows was successful as a daytime soap, but didn’t register much as a prime-time series. Twin Peaks was a huge hit the first season and successfully creeped us out, but its bizarreness wore out its welcome and it fizzled in its second season. The X-Files was probably the most successful series that tried to scare its audience by borrowing heavily from The Night Stalker and doing a better job with that format. Even though it had a mythology that unspooled over its nine seasons and two movies, most of the episodes were stand-alone stories unconnected with the mythology. Now, FX has given us American Horror Story, which tries to be a continuing saga with the intent of being terrifying on a weekly basis.
The pilot episode was very effective, creating a sense of dread and doom with a lot of good scares. I wonder how well the story of the family that is barely hanging on and is now threatened with a haunted house will play over a long period of time. It almost seemed like the writers threw out way too much in the first episode. Any one of the subplots could have been developed as its own episode–a married couple dealing with infidelity and the loss of a baby; a teenage girl coping with moving across country, bullies, and her dark emotions; a teenage boy with dark fantasies of death; a half-burned man who had murdered his wife and kids stalks a family to warn them of dangers; an over-the-top Southern belle of a neighbor with a Downs Syndrome daughter has some bizarre relationship with the haunted house; a creepy maid with a bad eye transforms into a young seductress to tempt the man of the house; and numerous murders have been made in the house over its long history, and apparently some of the victims are still around. All of this was crammed into an hour. While it was quite a ride, perhaps it would’ve been better to focus on just one or two of these elements and let the rest unfold over the period of season one. It’s safe to assume that each of these plot points will be dealt with in small amounts each week, but it has the possibility of over-stimulation. Can the writers keep up the momentum, or will it dissolve into a complicated mess, a la Twin Peaks?
Even though it’s on cable and the network that brought us The Shield, it’s a bit disconcerting to have the amount of swearing and blatant sexuality used in the pilot. If this was on Showtime or HBO, that would be a completely different story. It had a TV-MVLA advisory, but it would be very easy for someone who didn’t know better to be flipping through the channels and come across the scene where the man in the S&M rubber suit is having rather graphic sex with the female lead. This is R-rated material and is shocking to find it on a basic cable series.
The production values of the show is superb, in particular the art direction of the house. The tone was truly disturbing and engaging, the overall bleakness impressively oppressive. The actors are appealing, and it’s great to see Dylan McDermott back. The jump-cut editing style was annoying and counter-productive to the mood–it’s okay to hold on a shot rather than throw us around visually; just watch The Shining for how effective that can be. The premiere was breathtaking and had as much of an impact as the pilot of Twin Peaks. Let’s just hope it has the ability to keep surprising us with new twists rather than burning out like that series did.
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