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American Horror Story: TV Review

"American Horror Story" (FX)
Robert Zuckerman/FX

The Bottom Line

The men behind "Glee" pull out all the cliches in their scary but logic-defying series.

Airdate:

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 10 p.m. (FX)

Cast:

Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga

Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton star as a couple who move into a haunted house in FX's horror series.

In the second episode of FX’s blatantly outrageous American Horror Story, the character Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), a psychiatrist, asks this especially pertinent question after myriad insane things have happened to him or his family: “Is everybody crazy?”

Why, yes, Ben. But probably none crazier than your family, wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who moved from Boston to Los Angeles after you had an affair and now you’re all holed up in a creepy, obviously haunted house.

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Which you won’t leave. No matter how ridiculously scary and insane things get.

You don’t need to be a genius to know the threat level is pretty high in that house.

And that’s really the primary problem with American Horror Story, which was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and has numerous other problems that make little to no sense.

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Murphy and Falchuk are a long way from Glee, their other flawed series, as they dabble in what Murphy said was a psycho-sexual horror story as opposed to, say, the Saw franchise.

But it’s hard to tell whether Murphy and Falchuk are real fans of the horror genre or just set out to create something so creepy and freaky and off-the-charts weird that it would create massive buzz. One thing they got right – from bad horror movies, at least – is that every time a character has the opportunity to make a really bad decision that will almost certainly scare them senseless or kill them, they make it.

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With glee, you might say.

Instead of American Horror Story they should have just called it, Don’t Go In the Basement. Or – and this title was probably too cumbersome to consider – The People Who Lived In A Haunted House Where Freaktacular Stuff Happened to Them But They Wouldn’t Move Out.

This problem is especially keen in the pilot, which is a visually assaultive experience wrapped around spoof-worthy snippets of horror images and creep-fest gore, all capped off with a clashing assortment of musical styles that seem to be telegraphing the scares or carnage to come.

Which means that if you were to watch American Horror Story, at some point you might ask yourself if Murphy and Falchuk were going for an undercurrent of humor. Sadly, it seems they’re not. The pilot is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink of horror clichés, only this time the kitchen sink is in the basement. You probably shouldn’t go down there.

American Horror Story gives us the Harmons, who have just come off of Vivien’s miscarriage and Ben’s infidelity. They pack up sullen, sarcastic Violet and move to Los Angeles, where they buy a house in an expensive neighborhood for roughly a quarter of what everyone else is paying. Why?

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Duh.

People have been killed in that house. Possibly a lot of them. The house is also seriously haunted. We know this because people keep telling it to the Harmons, who refuse to leave even when it’s pretty clear everybody is right. In fact, a neighbor girl, Adelaide, flat out says they’re all going to die in the house. (Adelaide is the first person we meet in the pilot. She’s played by a young girl with Down Syndrome. She’s later portrayed by actress Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome. And Glee fans know that Murphy has used two other actresses with Down Syndrome, Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki, in that show. Murphy’s former FX series, Nip/Tuck, had a Season 3 story about a Down Syndrome man – played by Blair Williamson – who wants to have surgery to look more like his parents.  This is obviously a trend, but what its deeper meaning is, who knows). Adelaide’s mother Constance (Jessica Lange, easily the best element of the series) frequently calls Adelaide a “mongoloid,” which is uncomfortable, though Constance is an obviously deranged, mean and certainly dangerous mother.

Constance and “Addie” pop into the Harmon home uninvited – a lot –without knocking, which is a sitcom convention played for spooks here.

If you’re thinking American Horror Story is pulling a couple of muscles and slipping some disks bending backward to be scary, you’d be right. But you haven’t even met Larry, the guy who used to live in the house and is burned over most of his body and face because he lit his kids on fire when he lived there. He chases Ben down one day and – you guessed it – tells him to get the hell out of the house because it will possess him and bad things will happen.

Does Ben leave? He does not. That would be too easy.

Murphy did promise that all the crucial early questions will at least be addressed (if not solved) by the third of fourth episode. After seeing the second episode, where more violent, bloody, scary and random things happen in Casa Harmon – which seem to disturb the family about as much as if someone toilet papered their house – Vivien does finally say they’re moving out.

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Yet, that seems unlikely, right? There might not be a series left if that happens. And who would buy the damned house? How many clueless professionals are out there? Hell, the real estate agent said full disclosure obligated her to say the previous tenants, two gay men, were murdered there. Imagine what the Harmons would legally be obliged to reveal now after what they’ve seen and experienced in the pilot?

Look, there’s nothing on television quite like American Horror Story and, because of that, FX could be looking at record-breaking numbers here. (Against past precedent and common sense, maybe people should seriously watch the pilot just to see how messed up it is.) However, the retention rate could be precipitous after the pilot. On the other hand, maybe people who like horror don’t care about the little things like, say, staying the hell out of the house (particularly the basement, though – surprise – the attic is no picnic scene either). Maybe people will wander back to American Horror Story the way crazy-creepy people seem to wander into the Harmon home. (In the second episode, a particularly dangerous psychiatric patient of Ben’s named Tate – played by Evan Peters – seems to be forever lingering in the halls and he actually helps stem the chaos that unfolds one particular night. Ben, understandably, is upset. “What was he doing in the house?,” he asks Violet. “How should I know?,” she says.

Oh, honey, don’t worry about it. Nobody knows.

Maybe Murphy and Falchuk will indeed fix all the loose ends by the fourth episode. But FX could only send two episodes out before the premiere. Which is fine, actually. Unlike the Harmons, watching what goes on in that house even once is enough to know better than to go back again.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com