We've come to expect certain things from Ryan Murphy, just like we've come to expect certain tropes in our scary television shows: parts in jars, dead animals, questionably ethical use of special needs children for creepy effect, Lea Michele. I know Murph-dog and co-creator Brad Falchuk are responsible for Glee and Nip/Tuck, so I figured what I was going to get from An American Horror Story was an uncomfortable three-way between The Practice, Friday Night Lights, and the video for "Enter Sandman," set to an earsplitting cover of "Can We Still Be Friends?" by a shrill gay teen. And some of that we get.
Murphy's bloody jazz hand fingerprints are all over this thing. The characters are a liiiiiiittle broadly drawn and prone to paroxysms of melodrama, and there are a lot of beats where you can picture Falchuk and Murphy excitedly capping the dry erase pen and high-fiving each other before taking a break for celebratory "nailed it" scones.
Take the flashback opener, ostensibly set in 1971, which, I didn't look, but I'm guessing is listed on the Wikipedia page for "Notably Creepy Years." America loves nothing more than the grisly murder of redheaded children, so Ryan Murphy nicely doubles our pleasure by offing a mouth-breathing pair of ginger sociopaths who don't get that you should never go into a haunted house after a little girl with Down syndrome tells you not to. But these kids have obviously never seen The Shining and won't be put off by anything as foreboding as Down's Girl or a semi-dead opossum or a BABY HEAD IN A JAR. I mean, obviously these children are bad because they're going through a house destroying really lovely stained-glassed windows with an abandon that would absolutely KILL your hippie aunt, but can they get some points for bravery? Not phased by the baby head in the jar? But just when it looks like someone should get these kids jobs in The Hurt Locker, something in pancake makeup offs them while Ominous Down's Girl looks on scornfully, like, "Ha-ha, should have rented The Brood, idiots!" Always listen to the person with Down syndrome in a Ryan Murphy show, kay? (It's worth noting that Ominous Down's Girl is only Ominous Down's Actor Np. 1, here, mind you, and we're only on episode one. I think it's safe to say that at this rate, if you're an actor with Down syndrome, go ahead and put down cash on that BMW you've wanted to buy your dad, because you're all going to eat out for months over this show. In fact, if you have any kind of physically apparent chromosomal abnormality, Ryan Murphy probably will have a role for you as a "Harbinger of Doom No. 3" in the coming months. He's like the condescending FDR for people with congenital defects.)
Anyhow, that establishes that this house is not to be trifled with, which we already knew because of the unkempt landscaping. So we cut to the present, where we meet the Harmons, the family we can look forward to seeing tortured for the duration of the season. The always awesome Connie Britton is here to play another strong, suffering wife, and I think we can all agree that Connie Britton is great and we would never cheat on her like, Ben, alias Dylan McDermott, does, in the opener. (What a creep! Do you think he'll wear a fedora later? I bet he will!) Also, wife Vivian has had a ghastly miscarriage, which means we can look forward to lots of crying baby sounds, giggly baby ghosts, and baby parts in jars a-gogo.
So we get the nice horror trope of marital strife set up. Will the tenuous marriage of these two good-looking people be strengthened by bleeding walls and severed jar hands in the coming months? Well, we certainly hope so. Maybe when my parents were divorcing, they should have just moved into one of those murder-suicide houses.
Off they go in the car to their new haunted L.A. home, with daughter Violet and a little dog in tow — sorry, little dog, you will probably bite it before the rest of these people — and Vivien now has L.A. club girl hair and Dylan McDermott has that fedora that's going to haunt my dreams. We find out that they haven't had sex in a year, and Ben spends the rest of the episode trying to bone every woman but his daughter and maybe the Down's lady, out of lusty Nip/Tuckian frustration. If her parents look like they should be standing in line at the launch of a chocolate-flavored vodka, Violet (the very adorable Tessa "Baby Vera" Farmiga) looks like she's about to move into the nineties Seattle apartment complex from Singles. (Pretty sure that also had baby heads, though, so.) She smokes and wears hats, so I love her already.
The family quickly settles into its American Horror House, which the Realtor notes had been lovingly restored by a pair of conscientious homosexuals, obvi. Where was that flashback? I want to see Keith the Conscientious Homosexual leading a dinner party on a grand tour. "And here are the baby heads. Some of them were broken but they sell replicas at Restoration Hardware. Couldn't you just DIE?" (RAWRRR cue pancake makeup monster.) Maybe my favorite part of the Let's Just Establish that This House Is Haunted part of the pilot-episode exposition was when the Realtor explains that yes, the Conscientious Gays DID die in the house in a grisly murder suicide, but the only other house she has to show them is in THE VALLEY. And Dylan McDermott is all "No Thank You, lease show me to the babyheads."
Things progress like you'd expect. Down syndrome girl swings by to welcome the Harmons to the neighborhood, but instead of brownies she brings TWO TIME ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE JESSICA LANGE! Man, bet those gays wish they didn't murder-suicide themselves now, huh? Anyhow, as Constance the scenery chewing neighbor, she's apparently here to channel the restless spirit of Blanche Deveraux and be a racist old dowager, calling people with Down syndrome "monsters." I like when Vivien asks, "Are you southern?" after Constance talks about how Dora the Explorer and Go Diego Go are basically interchangeable as brown people. (Really!)
As if there's not enough going on, then we meet Violet's love interest, Tate, a Columbine-y patient of Ben's who apparently is going for the Junior Mister Michael Shannon award. And then the lovely Frances Conroy shows up as a housekeeper with one of those milky eyes and a dim view of organic cleaning (talk about a real American Horror Story, am I right?). She somehow appears old and scary to Vivien but young and foxy to Ben, though, so we get an uncomfortable scene of them in a near-clinch, which is great because it's been a while since I watched Frances Conroy romance Rainn Wilson through my fingers. Anyhow, this plot line also involves a scene of Dylan McDermott jerking off while crying, which was satisfying to watch for anybody who suffered through Texas Rangers.
Overall, the pilot has set us up for some thoroughly expected genre shibboleths but threw in some deeply "I'm sorry, what?" curve balls. Sure, whispery voices from the attic, a creepy basement, self-mutilation, bitchy mean schoolmates who will probably meet a violent end, strobe lights, dream sequences, somebody turning around to find all the cupboards and drawers open, and on, and on, and on. But there's also a brief Kill Bill homage (huh?), a gimp suit, mistaken-identity gimp-suit sex, and loads of Dylan McDermott's naked butt (a little something for those gay ghosts).
But back to that gimp-suit sex! The last ten minutes of this show! Oh man. Toward the end of the episode, the Harmons finally start doing it again. And so it's just an honest mistake when Vivien assumes the guy in the gimp suit who wanders into her bedroom silently is actually just her husband Ben. You know, because sometimes your husband just surprises you with a dead gay man's BDSM suit and you go with it. Read Dan Savage. Unfortunately, while Vivien is having mind-blowing sexytimes with gimp ghost, Ben is downstairs in a trance. Whoops.
Meanwhile, also in these ten minutes! Mini-Farmiga and Mini-Shannon try to exact revenge on a school bully by scaring her, but pancake basement monster shows up to offer some unwanted help (I really wanted him to shout, "RAWWWR it gets better!"). A creepy guy with a burnt face and brain cancer pops in to creep around the yard and shout "Your family is in danger!" (To which Ben replies, "Peeking in people's windows is still a crime! Even in L.A.!" Um. Okay!) He used to live in the house and he killed his whole family. Jessica Lange warns the Frances Conroy(s), "Don't make me kill you, again." (Violin screeEEEE!) And Vivien is pregnant and I hope to Maury it is not gimp-suit ghost monster's baby, because having that much vinyl in your uterus is just begging for a yeast infection — but it's totally the gimp ghost's baby.
There's a lot, isn't there? A lot going on here, in Amity/Glee/Tuck/Horror/Nipville. And the Harmons are all, "At least it's not the valley!" Overall, the first episode of True Blood Credits: the Television Show was pretty good. I think from the litany of creepshow clichés already covered, we can expect to see a deranged Santa, a jump-roping child-ghost, and maybe one of those scary fat adult babies in future episodes. Also, I give it extra points for using L.A. instead of Maine ("Thanks, American Horror Story!" — the tourism board of Maine) and for using that Rennie McIntosh font. Now I'm going to be creeped out whenever I see it on one of those tote bags with famous author quotations.