Monday, October 10, 2011

Everything American Horror Story: Pilot Review



I finally got to see American Horror Story this weekend, thanks to the DVR.  This is just about the only new show that I was looking forward to this season.  First, it speaks to my whole October is the Halloween Season spiel that I've been promoting.  Second, there is so little genre TV and so much crap I have no interest in on, this was a bright (okay, dark) speck of potential in the TV wasteland.  But now that I've seen it, I'm still not sure what I saw.  American Horror Hodgepodge?  Postmodern Horror Story?  The main impression that I came away with was that it has a little bit of everything.

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MINOR SPOILERS
In fact, almost everything that you can think of from the genre: weird science, murder, mutilation, madness, mental and physical retardation, creepy twins, sexual deviancy, stalking, ghosts, the old house, strange neighbors, preternatural abilities, alternate mental states, sleep-walking, and...let's see, what was missing?  Oh yes, a monster.  All that in an hour (and sometimes, more than one example of each element I named).  Having a little bit of everything worries me that it is going to be too unfocused and, above all, cliched.  Even if you were going to put all that into a series, putting it all in the first episode seems an act of desperation.  If good story telling has to be sacrificed to bring in the masses on the first episode for a show to survive these days, then, UGH.  "Look, no matter what freaky scare is your favorite, we've got you covered!"

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SPOILERS OVER
Happily, they are pulling out the stops in making the show: good writing, great actors, weird camera and editing tricks, and striking visuals.  But even if the show manages to transcends cliches, the first episode is too dense and overloaded -- too much, too soon.  Fear needs to be built, starting slow and letting it grow.  Dread becomes shock if there is no time for anticipation.  I'm afraid that too much was revealed in the first episode for the series to work as psychological horror. 

There is one other mistake that I anticipate will undermine the show's success, even more deadly: meta-cognition.  That is, there are moments that explicitly reflect on fear.  In one particularly memorable scene, the mom and daughter have a conversation about fear.  The mom marvels that her daughter isn't afraid of anything.  When her daughter responds by asking what it is that scares her, mom responds, "Everything."  Besides summing up my own fears for a show I had hopes for, this may be the greatest danger facing the show.  Meta-cognition about fear is what the makers of the show are supposed to be doing.  If the characters are doing it in the show, then the viewer is doing it to as they watch.  And the deadliest thing to fear is higher-level thinking about it.  Terror is an animal response.  Make us dread it before it hits, but don't make us think about it on a higher-level: we will think it out of existence.  If you want us to think about it, do it really cleverly and suggestively so we have these conversations around the water-cooler, not around the screen.

What's the outcome of the pilot in the Obscure household?  Well, I give up hard if you are trying to appeal to one of my out-of-the-mainstream appetites.  The show still has promise, and it peaked my curiosity as far as things I think I have figured out and things I'm not sure about, so I will be back to give the second episode a chance.  My wife, however, is not a genre fan.  It has to be unquestionably and overwhelmingly good for her to like it and be willing to come back for more -- and often for her to even stick with a single story.  (Examples to locate her on your calibrator: Mrs. Obscure came back for every Peter Jackson LotR film, every Harry Potter book and movie, and she loved the original Dracula novel.  And she does not have a particularly weak stomach: she loves all those true murder/rape/violent crime shows.)  So she's announced that she's out.  Looks like I can watch that digital video recording by myself next time.  I'll be curious to hear what you, esteemed Ramblers, have to say about American Horror Story.  And who knows, maybe if this doesn't work out, I can hold out some hope for Grimm, later in the month.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed it. It is a bit of a montage of current horror cinema styles and the tropes of The Shining, and bit of other "haunting" films like The Amityville horror but I think it's well done for all that.

    I am curious about the speed the plot seemed to develop in the first episode. It suggests to me that episodes may off fall into "drama with haunted house as a backdrop" rather than simply telling the story of a haunting--otherwise, I can't believe they can string it out for a season, much less multiple seasons.

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  2. Now that I have Sling technology with DISH Network, I never miss any episodes because I can use my iPhone to watch American Horror Story anytime and anywhere I want. Being that I am a customer and employee of DISH I can’t recommend the TV Everywhere feature enough to anyone who likes TV on the go. Right now new DISH Network customers can get a free Sling Adapter. Can’t wait for the next episode!

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