Serial Killer: On "American Horror Story"




Serial Killer: On "American Horror Story" by Phillip Maciak

On Ryan Murphy's maximalist melodrama and the possibilities of 'anthology' TV

October 15th, 2012 reset - +

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 awaits them, and by the time they inevitably separate and the now reassuring sound of the snaps ceases, it’s too late. There’s the flash of a creepy, baby doll monster, the sight of one of the boys with his throat slit, and before you know it, we’re back in the front yard with the little girl who somehow knew exactly what was coming to them.

An intertitle reading, “Today,” and then a table of surgical equipment. At last, we’re with our ostensible protagonist, Vivien (Connie Britton), as she sits in a doctor’s office discussing her apparently recent miscarriage. The doctor asks, “What are you so afraid of, Vivien?” What, indeed. We follow our heroine back through the snow, to a clean, modern home of the kind that architects often live in on TV shows. Vivien hears a noise, she calls the police, she grabs a knife, and, again, because we’ve seen this movie before, we know what she’ll do with it. Like Shelley Duvall, like Jamie Lee Curtis, like Neve Campbell before her, Connie Britton picks up a chef’s knife and stalks through a darkened hallway. But does she find a masked man with a chainsaw? The ghost of a Japanese child? A bright red devil in a three-piece suit? No, instead, she finds her husband (played with blank virility by Dylan McDermott), in flagrante delicto with another woman. She turns away in horror, he chases after her, and, in her attempt to flee the betrayal, she slices his arm with a dramatic sound effect. We hold on her husband’s terrified face, the soundtrack plays that little girl again — “You’re gonna regret it. You’re gonna regret it.” — and we cut to the opening credits. Sometimes, everything happens all at once.

Whatever viewers eventually thought about the almost non-stop flood of lunacy that poured out of Murphy’s mind and onto the screen for the ensuing twelve episodes — the show was likely more frequently hate-watched than Treme — it’s hard to argue with that cold open. Rarely has such a cannily filmed opening sequence felt so profoundly uncanny. Packed like a sardine tin with vintage seventies horror tropes, Hitchcockian domestic terror, a toothsome mise-en-scène, garish violence, playful editing, and potentially offensive scenarios involving mental illness, clairvoyance, and women’s reproductive health; cinematic influences from Polanski to Tarantino to the Coppolas (older and younger), and the introduction of American Horror Story still barely prepared audiences for what was to come. If great shows often throw down a gauntlet in the pilot — Lost, The Shield, and Friday Night Lights all begin with shocks they spend seasons unpacking — American Horror Story seemed constructed as an escalating series of dares. With smatterings of S&M, grotesque injuries, Kurt Cobain impersonations, several kinds of rape, several kinds of murder, dentists, abortionists, psychics, the Black Dahlia, the Pope, same-sex ghost adoption, and more masturbation than is normal even for a network that employs both Louis C.K. and Charlie Sheen, American Horror Story came out and left it all on the floor, often literally.

As the plot of the series — centered around Vivien and her broken family living in the haunted house of the cold open — grew more and more complex and craven, viewers and critics who were initially wary of Murphy’s glittering gore-fest grew curious. How can a show sustain itself at this pace? What else does Murphy have up his sleeve? Can ghosts really adopt babies? As the show neared its first season conclusion, these questions abounded. Then, finally, they were all answered with the most shocking and ultimately logical twist possible. American Horror Story is an anthology series.

Thus, the great reveal at the end of the first season of American Horror Story was not the answer to who would die and who would survive. That answer was relatively easy to come by: everybody dies, or was dead already. Nor was the big reveal about the fate of Vivien’s family or the denouement of the Troma meets Tennessee Williams play going on next-door to the haunted house. The reveal, instead, was a reveal about the show itself. American Horror Story, it turned out, would continue as a series in which a core group of actors would dramatize wholly unrelated, self-contained stories every season. Creating a series radically unlike everything else on TV, from its content to its form, Ryan Murphy had effectively punked critics and viewers alike. The shocker at the end of the first season of American Horror Story was not about how the story would end. The shocker was that it did end. Period.

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American Horror Story mines the gory and disturbing outer possibilities of cable television’s subject matter, emphasizes performance and perspective over long-form plotting, and is built in such a way that its very structure flouts the conventions of prestige and value that have enshrined HBO, AMC, and their peer networks at the Emmy’s. And yet, it gets Emmy nominations and even wins some (Jessica Lange, this year). As its confoundedness increased, it only gained viewers, going from a 1.6 share for the pilot to a 1.8 by the seventh episode. It may not move as slowly as Treme, but its narrative is complexly woven, if finite. The success of this series forces us to ask where precisely it fits, what exactly it even is, when placed in a line-up with a gallery of television shows that look nothing like it. In the current television landscape dominated by episodic procedurals like CSI, heavily serialized prestige dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and high-quality in-betweeners like The Good Wife, American Horror Story, like its network neighbor Louie, is an odd duck.

It is not, however, unprecedented. In fact, the road to the aforementioned television landscape, as we all know, was by no means paved with seamlessly executed five-season serial dramas. A look at the ragged history of television — littered as it is with cult hits, cancelled darlings, sophomore slumps, and other freaks and geeks — shows that American Horror Story might actually be more representative of the current state of things than we might otherwise assume.

The direct forebears to American Horror Story are, of course, the classic anthology dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, descended, often directly, from radio anthologies that had been popular in earlier decades. Dick Powell’s Four Star Playhouse, The Philco Television Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and many others — many of these series were inordinately popular and functioned in similar ways. Each episode featured an entirely new story, though the production values and aesthetic points-of-view remained roughly consistent. And often, especially on the drama playhouses, the episodes would feature a regular repertory of actors. These series brought in viewers based on precedent. Philco promised a certain quality of upper-middlebrow performance while Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone promised perverse puzzles and scares. Though each episode could differ greatly in tone or subject matter, like a George Lucas production or a Spike Lee Joint, the imprimatur of Hitchcock promised that whatever came on the screen would be, well, Hitchockian.

While American Horror Story is clearly influenced by these series, especially the macabre world of Hitchcock and Twilight, there is a key difference. That is, rather than anthologizing episodes, American Horror Story aims to anthologize seasons. This is more rare in the history of the anthology show. Indeed, one of the few major examples in this particular corner of the genealogy is Masterpiece Theatre, which has been running since 1971. Designed to import British productions to the states and curated with a seasoned eye for high-brow entertainment, Masterpiece Theatre (now just Masterpiece) broadcasts British miniseries one after another, and, thus, is really only incidentally related to the formal derring-do of Ryan Murphy. Masterpiece collects programs, whereas American Horror Story creates them from scratch.

Television viewing culture has changed much since the days of the Philco playhouse and the original Masterpiece Theatre, though, and audiences are now capable of sailing through entire seasons in one sitting by streaming on Netflix or Hulu. For viewers catching up on anything from Downton Abbey to Breaking Bad, seasons can speed by in a slurry of action, with episodic cliff-hangers that once devastated viewers functioning less to create tension than to encourage audiences to push on, and season-long arcs and global themes sidling to the forefront. And, indeed, many series, like True Blood and Justified, have taken to building each season around discrete tales, such as the long arc of a particular villain. Season two of Justified, for the streaming viewer, is less notable for any episodic intrigues than it is for the season-long rise and fall of Mags Bennett. The same goes for True Blood and the dastardly vampire Russell Edgington, or Marnie the witch. In this way, the season has not replaced the episode, but viewing patterns and now dominant serial conventions have made it easier to view the season as an independent unit of measure. The viewer can thus watch something like The Wire in two different lights. Years after it aired weekly, does The Wire make more sense to us as a program serialized in five parts, or in sixty?

This is not to suggest that episodes no longer matter, but rather that the idea of an anthology series that is also narratively serialized can be seen as a rather nimble response to the viewing habits of the Netflix age. Nor do I suggest that Murphy himself has abandoned the episodic. Some of the episodes in AHS’s first season are master-classes in the management of expectation, and nearly every one of those episodes introduces a period story of one of the house’s previous owners told in flashback and interspersed with the contemporary plot. From a maniacal surgeon in 1922 to a jealous gay couple in 2010, these stories are dramatized episode after episode, and they form something like a loose case-of-the-week structure. American Horror Story is like a serialized narrative that has eaten a season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But, as if to acknowledge the legacy of the anthology that American Horror Story carries along with it and to slyly wink at the show’s own narrative machinations, the ghosts of these stories, once they’ve been told, visibly haunt the house for the rest of the series. In other words, once we have seen the story of Zachary Quinto’s jealous lover or Mena Suvari’s Black Dahlia those characters become a part of the cast, wandering about the house, showing up now and again. It’s a brilliant revision of the episodic anthology concept — the series itself as haunted house, bursting at the seams with the actors and plotlines it has accumulated over time. The Sopranos used to run ads that featured the ghostly figures of characters who had been killed off the show. American Horror Story made that novelty a part of its very structure.

But American Horror Story is not only interested in extending the logic of the anthology series or updating the viewing cultures of the past. Some of the show’s most direct forebears are not themselves anthologies but are actually the serialized dramas from which the show seems to have most defiantly distanced itself. The Wire, for instance, while held up as the series that both originated and perfected many of the moves we associate with capital-G Great serial television, has a structure that actually owes a great deal to the anthology concept. Each season of The Wire introduces a new group of characters, a new environment, and a new theme at the same time that it continues the narrative of the neverending drug war. Because the sociological meta-narrative that underwrites The Wire conceptually — that it’s impossible to escape or transcend a system that is bigger than us all—belies the possibility of closure or even resolution, the seasons of the show are as much case studies as pieces of a discrete story. The first season focuses on the Quixotic quest to topple the Barksdale syndicate, the second goes after corruption at the docks, the third expands to the Tommy Carcetti’s rise in politics, the fourth moves to the public school system, and the fifth breaks into the newspaper. Each season tells a story, but it also profiles an organization, adding installments to an anthology at the same time that it advances a serial narrative.

These seasonal shifts are not so drastic as American Horror Story’s will be, but David Simon, at the same time, was perfectly willing to sideline his show’s seeming protagonist (Jimmy McNulty) for whole seasons in the service of a greater undertaking. Deadwood too attempted to thematize seasons, if to a less transformative effect. The result, for both of these shows, was a picture that always felt broader than the individual storylines. One of the things critics and audiences have repeatedly cited as so compelling about The Wire was its dramatization of a complicated network, a global, irreducible issue, and it doesn’t seem outrageous to imagine that Ryan Murphy has the same kind of universal statement in mind. It’s unclear still what larger “American” story Ryan Murphy is trying to tell — maybe there isn’t one — but, by anthologizing his show this way, he will force audiences to think, in the long term, about what these seasons will have in common. Is it possible to succeed with such a stark experiment in macro-storytelling? Or, on the other hand, might American Horror Story be an aesthetic rather than a narrative project, a horror story more concerned with a particular type of horror than a particular type of story?

Regardless, Murphy is not alone in his explicit interest in the possibilities of anthologized television. Beyond The Wire, HBO has fostered a talent-focused environment in which a few especially successful producers have created de facto anthologies. Throughout the past decade or so, Tom Hanks has been building something like this with his miniseries on the network. From the Earth to the Moon (1998), Band of Brothers (2001), John Adams (2008), The Pacific (2010) — all co-produced by Tom Hanks, all gritty, but ultimately patriotic takes on the Great Works of American history, and all detailing the cooperation and fraternity between groups of epoch-making men, these works might one day be released together as the American Hero Story. While only Band of Brothers and The Pacific pair off in terms of their content, these series, and the likely series to come, fit into the format of the anthology that Murphy is beginning to establish at FX. The network seems well on its way to continuing this trend by producing Recount and Game Change, a pair of snappy films that seem likely to be the first two entries in a series about recent political history, directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong. And, as if anyone doubted the network’s faithfulness to the auteur showrunner, HBO has recently optioned the collected works of William Faulkner and entrusted the ensuing production to David Milch. While details on this deal are still sketchy, imagining Milch’s guiding vision bringing forth adaptations of even a handful of Faulkner’s novels is to imagine a very specific kind of anthology. Perhaps in 2014, we’ll see the Milch Faulkner HBO Playhouse. Throw in Tales from the Crypt, and it quickly becomes apparent that HBO, even as it has pioneered new quality serial television for 15 plus years, has been quietly keeping the anthology alive, as well. (In this vein, it’s worth noting the recent critical and popular success of ESPN’s 30 for 30 sports documentary anthology.)

Outside of anthologies and anthology-like series, however, American Horror Story finally owes something to the cast-offs and anomalies of a streamlined television history. The first of these is the standalone first season. These single seasons are often the result of a show that never managed to find its footing or its audience. On occasion, however, these series will reveal themselves to have simply been ahead of their time. The best examples of this phenomenon are Judd Apatow’s two separate television series — Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared — both of which were canceled after a single season, and both of which have lived on foundational texts of the Apatow canon. Freaks and Geeks especially, long popular on DVD and recently available on Netflix, is looked upon as a kind of great lost masterwork. Its stars (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel) have gone on to bigger things, and its aesthetic, which was deemed at the time to be too dark and subtle for television comedy, lives on in the outrageously successful Apatow feature film brand, but even more so on the Apatow-produced Girls. More people are currently watching the ill-fated Freaks and Geeks than ever likely watched the game show with which it was replaced, but, as a by-product of the contingency of network television, Judd Apatow now has a small, unintended anthology of standalone seasons. Both shows share key cast members, themes, and aesthetics though they tell different stories. It seems like only a matter of time before Criterion shops “Apatow’s Early Television Years” as an Eclipse collection.

Strictly speaking, those two shows don’t constitute a legitimate anthology, but what they have done — along with other star-crossed series like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, FX’s Terriers, or, most recently, Milch’s Luck — is create an appetite in viewers for single-serving exposures to recognized talents and perspectives. They are not themselves an anthology, but their easy availability and cult popularity have helped nurture the culture in which an anthology might catch on. Watching Firefly will not bring Buffy back once you’ve finished it, but it allows access to the same sensibility. Luck and John from Cincinnati are not Deadwood, but they sure look and sound like David Milch series. This dynamic is partially what will make American Horror Story possible. Rather than attempting to craft a long-lived narrative, Murphy and co-creator Falchuk are attempting to codify an aesthetic that will bring viewers back. What has happened to so many unlucky seasons of television, Murphy and Falchuk will reverse engineer in a laboratory setting. The similarly cut title sequences will remind audiences of last year’s horror story, and familiar faces will create some linkage, but, as the seeming dozens of atmospheric promos for American Horror Story: Asylum attest, it’s the mood and feel that is meant to bring the audience back. American Horror Story is dead. This is what’s next.

But American Horror Story is not just built on this clever read of viewing practices. It also aims to avoid a trap that a lot of television series fall into, especially the ones that go for broke in the way that AHS tends to. That is, by anthologizing rather than serializing, long-term, Murphy and Falchuk can exhaust their stories without anxiety. TV history is littered with shows that have lived past their sell-by dates. Everything jumps the shark if it stays around long enough. It’s also a graveyard of series cut off before their time. Milch, to return to the all-purpose example for every television phenomenon, notoriously constructed Deadwood as a four-season arc only to have the show canceled after the third. The now-canonical My So-Called Life certainly had more stories to tell beyond a second season. In addition to taking advantage of formal models that resulted from network whims, American Horror Story used models like this to bullet-proof itself against those same concerns by telling stories that take exactly 12 or 13 episodes to tell. As long as the show is never pulled midseason, American Horror Story won’t ever have to face the fate of series that died in medias res.

Moreover, American Horror Story, even as it faces very valid criticism from other angles, won’t have to worry about overstaying its welcome. The much ballyhooed Homeland faced this crisis very recently and is currently in the midst of demonstrating whether or not it can maintain its quality and appeal into subsequent seasons. At the end of Homeland’s spectacular first season, many critics — most notably Emily Nussbaum and Matt Zoller Seitz — argued that, formally, the show had an ideal one season arc. In other words, Homeland had an opportunity, had it ended differently, to drop the mic and leave the stage as a flawless, one-season television event. All narrative bridges would be burned, and, with one exploded bunker left sizzling, it would enter television history as a searing indictment of post-9/11 American culture and an absolutely perfect act of television bravado. But the series has soldiered on in the hopes that what it may eventually bring as a multi-part saga will exceed the mark it would have left as a standalone season.

Everything that makes American Horror Story brilliantly innovative also makes it opportunistic, and its structural refusal to tell anything but self-contained stories will eventually reveal it to have been either a paradigm-shifting trend-setter or a hollow exercise. The tag line that plays before the five-minute teaser of the show’s second season says, with a pun based on the asylum setting, “The first five minutes will get you committed.” This illuminates both American Horror Story’s modus operandi and its greatest vexing question. What does it mean to be committed to a show like this? What all of these examples — from early anthologies to beloved canceled series — share in common is that they require a kind of commitment incommensurate with their fleeting structure. The short life of Freaks and Geeks, like that of John Keats, makes it all the more precious. It is something to be rewatched, to be held close. Likewise, the movements of The Wire, even for viewers who can’t stand Ziggy Sobotka or who miss McNulty when he’s gone, somehow bring the stories into a different realm of experience. And even The Twilight Zone, with no recurring characters or story arcs to speak of, eventually became a kind of skewed life philosophy. Its point of view emerged as a way of seeing the world that, during the Cold War, made a kind of perverse sense.

The forebears of American Horror Story all share a heart and a soul that reaches from the screen to implicate the viewer. Any coherence, any story, any life beyond must be provided by an audience deeply invested, deeply committed to the show’s project. Time will tell if American Horror Story can acquire that kind of commitment from an audience. Murphy has certainly done something of the kind with Glee and its legion of “Gleeks.” But American Horror Story is not Glee. In fact, Glee’s sense of inclusiveness, its facility with spectacle, its camp aesthetic — the aspects that make the show lovable — have traveled over to American Horror Story as grotesque inversions of themselves. Where Glee is democratic, American Horror Story is anarchic; where Glee is liberatory, American Horror Story is claustrophobic; while Glee is a wholesome, if occasionally unwelcome, embrace, American Horror Story is a shovel to the head. It reflects the materiality, the contingency, even the cruelty of television culture at this moment, and, as such, it is adapted for survival. But what of the immaterial? Can American Horror Story conjure commitment the same way it conjures its ghosts? Will this series come alive over its seasons, or will it seem to future viewers a cold anomaly, craftily avoiding death amidst a gallery of long-dead, still-beating hearts?

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