Tuesday October 2, 2012

Everybody ought to have a maid,

Someone who you hire when you're short of help

To offer you the sort of help

You never get from a spouse.

-- Stephen Sondheim I heard a lot about "American Horror Story" and most of the talk was good. The proverbial fly was the fact that it is produced by Ryan Murphy, the person generally held responsible for "Glee," an unbearably earnest television series for people who have stores of optimism that would make Mr. Rogers gag. The kids in "Glee" don't so much attend a high school as reprent a developmental and/or sociological Issue (capitalization intended). The show's moral, I guess, is that anything can be overcome if you can manage to keep a song in your heart and your school's drama department has a budget that would be the envy of the Shubert Organization.

Need I state that I hated it?

You know how you are invariably disappointed in something you have heard a lot about? I figured that my trepidation over the fact that the show was produced by the same man who inflicted "Glee" upon the world rendered "American Horror Story" on a kind of neutral ground - the good hype canceled out the possible Gleeish overtones, leaving me relatively unbiased. That's unusual.

The premise of the first season wasn't terribly original.


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Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton) move to California in an effort to patch up the leak in their marriage that sprung when Viv caught her husband in bed with one of his students. The house that they bought in L.A. has a "history," which the real estate lady mentions with crisp, understated efficiency. A murder/suicide in the basement, she says. Two gay men. Things have loosened up, but life still isn't easy for gay people. Nasty business. It's all cleaned up down there now. You'd never know.

But the real estate lady is only divulging part of the grisly story. The house is the Smithsonian of murder and madness and it extends back many decades. Most of its previous owners are deceased, but very few have departed. The place seems to bring out the worst in everybody, but, oddly enough, they stay on.

It takes the Harmons an extraordinarily long time to realize that the nice realtor wasn't completely up front with them, but there are mitigating circumstances. Vivien is taking her sweet time recovering from Ben's indiscretion, their pouty daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), is beginning to awaken sexually, and Ben's practice as a psychiatrist is struggling. It can't help when tour busses stop in front of the place and the guide announces, "Here it is, folks, the Murder House." over the PA system.

Most unnerving, however, are the folks next door, Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange, who is wonderful) and her daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer). They seem to turn up everywhere. Perhaps because Adelaide has Down syndrome, no one takes her seriously when she says, "You're gonna die in there." and it isn't exactly what the new neighbors want to hear on top of all of their other problems.

Constance's history, not unlike Vivien's if you discount the gun, is inextricably tied with the house. I had a difficult time figuring her out. She is still a very handsome woman, despite the troubled past, and her speech has the lilting cadence of one of those wilted Tennesse Williams heroines. She does let priceless moments for mother/daughter bonding slip through her fingers though. When Adelaide tells her mother that she wants to be a "pretty girl" for Halloween, Constance opts for a full-face mask as the only possible way to pull it off. It didn't seem very tactful, much less maternal.

Ben applies his training to most every adverse situation, even informing his still-seething wife that her reaction to his tacky little affair was "perfectly appropriate." Viv responds to the professional condescension with an icy civility that sounds like the audio equivalent of waterboarding.

Given her legitimate concern over his fidelity deficiencies, it strikes Ben as strange that Vivien would agree to hire a Playboy centerfold maid, who makes it a point to bend over as much as possible while she's tidying up. On the other hand, in Viv's eyes, the woman looks like a matron at a Nazi prison camp.

So, despite all the throat slashings, the dismemberings, the burnings, the shootings, and the rampant lunacy that have occurred within its walls, the house, it seems, also has an impish sense of humor. (Your own wife might disagree with that characterization.)

The one adjective that comes most quickly to mind as you are watching "American Horror Story" is derivative. It is culled from - and perhaps inspired by - good movies ("Psycho," "Rosemary's Baby," Robert Wise's "The Haunting," "The Uninvited") and bad ones like "The Amityville Horror," the "Friday the 13th" franchise, or the lousy version of "The Haunting." The music borrows shamelessly from Bernard Herrmann, the pacing occasionally recalls the Marx Brothers at their most frenetic, and the plot has more holes in it than Governor Sanford's story about the Appalachian Trail.

Need I state that I loved every minute of it?