Written by guest contributor Dave Fox
Every well-regarding TV show in history has had its detractors. Even a classic like Twin Peaks divided opinion. Lost often split audiences right down the middle. I even know people who find documentary-of-the-moment Making A Murderer boring. But there's one show that seems unanimously loved, at least by people I know: American Horror Story.
Ever since the show debuted in 2011; friends, co-workers and relatives have been telling me to watch it. I always resisted, horror isn't really my thing, and there are so many shows to catch up on that it was always very low on my list of shows to watch.
But, one fateful day recently, I was browsing listlessly through Netflix when my fiance suggested that we watch American Horror Story to "see what the fuss is about". I agreed, and it's a decision I will always regret.
The anthology series is currently on its fifth season, American Horror Story: Hotel. Naturally, my experience started at the beginning with American Horror Story: Murder House. It's the season that is almost universally regarded as being the best. Given how much I hated it, I can only imagine how awful I'll find Hotel once I get to it (if I get to it!).
Murder house follows the Harmon family: psychiatrist Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and their moody teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). They move into an old mansion in L.A. and are haunted by strange happenings and the apparitions of anyone who had ever died in the infamous "murder house".
Haunted house tales are as old as time, and the setting is perfect, in theory, for a creepy, suspenseful thriller. But instead of that, Murder House delivers a shrill, jumbled mess. The Harmon family seem to be going through about twelve different crises at once while the house itself is haunted by what seems to be an innumerable number of ghosts. Not content to tell a simple ghost story, the show throws everything at the wall to see what sticks: a school shooting, suicide, rape, a mutation in the basement, scientific experiments gone wrong, the antichrist...it's all there. And most of it doesn't need to be. Murder House feels as though it's written by an excitable child with ADHD.
American Horror Story's second season, Asylum, is much the same. It's worth mentioning that American Horror Story is an anthology series like True Detective and Fargo. Each season is distinct, following a different story and a different cast of characters, albeit with a revolving cast of actors playing different roles. So Asylum takes place in, well, an asylum. Unlike Murder House, it isn't set in the present day but in the 1960's. The season follows the lives of the nuns, doctors and patients who occupy Briarcliff Mental Institution. Again, the setting is interesting. Given the horrors that were seen inside the walls of mental institutions during this period in history, the potential was there for some really creepy, unsettling television. Creator Ryan Murphy even said the season was "based largely on truth and truth is always scarier than fiction".
"Based largely on truth"? Asylum contains with in its walls a former Nazi in hiding, experimenting on patients; mutated, feral, cannibalistic ex-patients who live in the woods, a serial killer who kills women and wears their skin, exorcisms, devil possession, the Angel of Death, rape (yep, again), oh, and aliens. Because why the hell not? It's fair to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the truth. In Asylum, just as in murder house, a promising setting is ruined by jumbled storytelling. Absolutely nothing in Asylum makes any sense. In fact, both of the first two seasons lurch from idea to idea and don't seem to settle on anything at all. It's irritating, it's distracting, and it's certainly not scary.
I haven't yet moved on to season three (Coven), but I'm sure it will have as much frenetic, unfocused energy as Murder House and Asylum. All I want is for American Horror Story to live up to its name and tell an actual story. A solidly plotted story that sticks to an idea for more than five minutes, and carries it through to the end. Sadly, I think it's far too much to ask.
American Horror Story: Murder House and American Horror Story: Asylum Director: Bradley Buecker and Various Writers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Various Studio: 20th Century Fox