Review of “American Horror Story”: The Best Show on Television?

From the moment I heard that Ryan Murphy, the creator of “Nip Tuck”, was doing a full-on horror series for the FX Network, I thanked the old gods and I patiently awaited the October 2011 premiere. I was a fan of the consistently exploitative “Nip/Tuck” and one of the reasons I liked that series was the underlying “horror” that it contained. Specifically, the horrific parts of it dealt with the lengths people that would go to, all in the pursuit of beauty.

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that “American Horror Story” was going to be a haunted-house type of story. After 15 years-or-so of bland “haunting” films and a slew of ghost-themed television shows, I really wasn’t in the mood for yet another one. But, my skepticism was put to rest because Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and the fantastic cast of AHS managed to craft a fresh and engaging show that surpassed all my expectations. Aside from a few shows (like “Dexter”) on the premium channels,  I think that AHS is currently the best show on television.

At this point, most people have heard something or other about the series, so I am not going to discuss every detail of it. Though, I will say that the show is based upon a combination of horror films, urban legends, and real-life killings. For example, the larger “haunted-house” story is interspersed with things like the Richard Speck nurse-killings, the Black Dahlia mystery, and a version of the old Bloody Mary mirror ritual – to name a few. No, it’s nothing new but I feel that the familiarity of the content actually works in the show’s favor.

That leads me to my next point: the strength of AHS lies mainly in the style and execution. Because it has a very familiar foundation, I feel that the series can easily unfold and venture into unpredictable areas. Basically, it has a blank canvas so there are no limits for the visuals, characters, and other aspects of the show. The creators really built upon the traditional, archetypal haunting story and in the process successfully rebooted a tired horror sub-genre. It is vibrant, complex, textured, and focuses on every little detail – from the seductive charm of the creepy Victorian house right down to the inspired and unusual musical cues. Contrary to the “American” in the title, I feel that the show is actually done in more of a European or Asian style. And you know what? It is actually better than most American horror films that I have seen over the past 15 years.

One of the best things about AHS is that it dares to go into the territory of “scary” subject matter, where most people feel uncomfortable. A few examples of the “scary” subject matter are: a school-shooter; an appearance-oriented, dramatic, politically-incorrect, baby boomer who is an abusive Joan Crawford type; a drug-addicted doctor who performs abortions in the basement of the house; a kidnapped and dismembered baby; and a cheating man who burns his wife and kids alive. All of the characters in the series have some hidden “horror” in their life that is eating away at them and destroying all of the people around them. The truly “scary” part is that things like the aforemtioned happen in real life – in some neighborhood, in some household, behind closed doors.

In fact, a recurring theme of the series is: keeping up the appearance of normality, just for the sake of appearance, is one of the most destructive things in life. AHS certainly tears off every aspect of “appearance”, jumps right in, and gets to the truth.  The whole point of the show, I feel, is the comparison between the horror of fiction and the horror of reality. In a thought-provoking, yet subtle way, the series poses the following question: “What is more scary, ghost and haunted houses or the things that go on in real life, in the newspaper headlines?”

After all is said and done, I really don’t have any criticism of the show. It’s as perfect as a television series can get and it sets the quality bar very high. For the second season, I understand that the series is going to take place in a whole new setting (some type of institution on the east coast). Also, some of the same actors will be returning but they won’t be playing the same characters. Essentially, it is a new story with some of the same actors. Yes, it seemed a little odd to me at first – and risky – but I think the creators can pull it off.

To recap, “American Horror Story” is an intelligent, shocking, honest, scary, and entertaining series that is addictive and very fulfilling. For a cable television show, the creators and FX took a lot of chances and I am very happy for that. Along with the “uncomfortable” subject matter, there is a strong sexual component (heterosexual, homosexual, fetishes) which definitely makes it an adult-oriented series. As with “Nip/Tuck”, kudos to the FX network for airing the series and not apologizing for it. My only complaint is that I wanted a little more resolution and explanation (some, not all) of the first season. But, I guess that could also be a compliment because the show always left me wanting more.

 

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

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