All of a sudden, cable dramas have gotten sucked into a prestige trap: If they needlessly elongate and stretch their plotlines, then somehow that slowness can be worn as a badge of honor. The Killing dared to spin its wheels for a full season and still not answer a damn thing by the end, while AMC’s Rubicon spent several episodes barely budging from its starting position, and the only thing swift about it was its cancellation.
Last night, Ryan Murphy unveiled his upcoming FX drama American Horror Story to reporters, and of the many rules it breaks, the biggest one might be its gleeful defiance of the slow-as-molasses trend. So much happens in the first episode of this haunted-house series — so much that you would normally expect to be seeded over the course of several episodes or even several seasons — that you can’t ever look away. By the time this show hits episode three, the characters could plausibly be in outer space at the pace it moves at.
And that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing, because Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have clearly decided to jump-start cable drama again after rewriting those rules with the provocative 2003 series Nip/Tuck, and they will succeed at that. American Horror Story is the furthest thing from your usual TNT cop show or buddy vehicle on USA, and if it’s a hit, it could be a game-changer in the sense that it’ll make networks a little wilder again.
But where do they go from here? To give a synopsis of the series — a troubled family, headed by Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott, moves into a potentially haunted house in Los Angeles — is to only describe the first ten minutes, because an incredible amount goes down in the first hour alone. The central question of any haunted-house story is “Why don’t they just move out?” and in order to keep that query at bay for thirteen episodes, Murphy and Falchuk would have had to slowly spring their surprises on the central family over the course of the season; in the American Horror Story pilot, however, Britton and McDermott learn of countless people who have previously died in their mansion, are constantly besieged by local wackadoos telling them to move, and have both had tear-filled sexual encounters with ghosts. The story covers so much ground that when the McDermott character, a therapist, takes a wannabe high-school shooter as his first new patient, that kid has already exchanged loaded glances with McDermott’s daughter, fallen into a relationship with her, and broken up with her by the end of the first episode. (Not to mention, he’s been possessed by ghosts twice.)
Excess is best in Ryan Murphy’s world, and to be sure, it’s welcome in some ways. When Jessica Lange swans in as the nosy new neighbor, snooping around for the eventual Emmy nomination she’s sure to receive, it’s a reminder that nobody writes showy guest-star parts better than Murphy. Though the pilot isn’t scary, per se, there’s always the sense with a Murphy show that absolutely anything could happen, and that’s vital for horror. (Well, let’s amend that: The opening-credits sequence is pretty scary. It’s like the True Blood opening, condensed, unnervingly edited, and more terrifying.) And though the show recycles familiar Murphy tropes — yes, there’s an actress with Down’s syndrome, and yes, McDermott shows his ass so many times that even Nip/Tuck’s eternally nude Julian McMahon would blush — it’s not like anyone else on TV is doing them.
It’s just that the tension generated by the pilot isn’t because of its scares, it’s derived from the full-throttle “how do they sustain this” plotting. Murphy and Falchuk introduced the show by comparing it to classic horror like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, but they didn’t allow themselves the same slow-burn setup, or the room for incipient dread. Vulture hears that the fourth episode, already written and soon to film, is self-referentially called “Get the Hell Out of That House.” The thing with American Horror Story is that the first episode could be called that, too. Hell, the whole show could be retitled that — and if Murphy and Falchuk want us to move in and stay a while, they might want to give their new guests some time to relax.