RYAN MURPHY SEEMS to have something against HBO’s Treme, and it’s not hard to see why. As was observed by Vulture a few weeks ago, Murphy’s characters on both The New Normal and Glee have recently been throwing barbs at David Simon’s notoriously slow series as one that is either hate-watched or not watched at all. Last month, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jonathan Alexander more charitably described Simon’s epic drama about post-Katrina New Orleans as a “long, slow, sometimes beautiful, sometimes tedious argument for itself.” Murphy, whose numerous hit series include FOX’s Glee and FX’s Nip/Tuck, would appear to ascribe to a different aesthetic philosophy. Advocating melodrama over studied observation, inspirational musical numbers and pockets of shriek-inducing violence over meandering narrative, and broad social statements over minute ethnography, Murphy, for his part, is likely the kind of maximalist auteur that would give David Simon heartburn. Though occasionally tedious, Murphy’s shows are rarely slow, and they never, ever make arguments for themselves. Murphy’s characters presumably hate-watch Treme because even they can’t imagine a world in which they would move with so little noise and so much meditation. Sometimes, especially on HBO, nothing terribly significant will happen in the space of a single episode; in a Ryan Murphy episode, sometimes everything happens all at once.
And no Ryan Murphy show has so unapologetically announced its presence in this manner as FX’s American Horror Story, a show which entered the crowded field of serial television like a suicide bomber. The pilot episode of the series — which advertised magnetic leads like Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Jessica Lange — begins with a breakneck cold open. An intertitle tells us it’s 1978. Strings leer as the camera swoops through dead trees, a wind chime made of bones dangles in view, and a pair of identical red headed boys who look like infielders from The Bad News Bears stroll into frame holding baseball bats. As they approach what we know from decades of bloody horror movies to be an obviously haunted house, a little girl with Down syndrome informs them, “You’re going to die in there.” The boys enter the dark house all the same, throwing snaps on the ground like Alfred Molina’s silent ward in Boogie Nights, and the girl reproachfully repeats, “You’re gonna regret it.”
After hurriedly accumulating all of this detail and dread, the camera follows the boys through the doorway, and as soon as they begin to gleefully vandalize the house, we hear the dulcet tones of the fifties sister act Patience and Prudence innocently singing “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the soundtrack. The song’s title bears an ominous double meaning — the contrast between the sickly sweet tune and the violence onscreen is an old trick, but it works. As the song plays, the camera leaves the boys and begins to explore the house and all of its tastefully terrifying early-twentieth century wainscoting. After this brief transition to House Hunters Supernatural, the camera rejoins our twin terrors. The boys move down into a cobwebbed basement, swearing at each other, horsing around, blithely unaware of the threat that...read more