American Horror Story doesn’t remotely care what you think of it. It’s excessive, trashy, and grotesque. As I watch the show for the first time, I’m admiring that a lot more than I expected to.
Reviews for the first season suggested it was dynamic and creepy but substance-free. Even after the show revealed itself to be a season-long anthology series, I didn’t jump on for season two, Asylum. Like True Blood, it sounded provocative and diverting but hardly a priority when there’s still more Justified and Louie to catch up on. But so much chatter is hard to ignore. The Good Wife needs to be seen from the beginning, but I can test this out right now.
So season three, Coven, is my first American Horror Story experience. I was tantalised by reviews from the likes of Matt Zoller Seitz and Emily Nussbaum, who were open about the show’s excess but still raved about it. It’s also hard to resist sampling a show that inspires weekly lists of ‘WTF moments’.
Three episodes in, it’s just as insubstantial as I expected. What I didn’t expect is that American Horror Story fully owns its identity as a decadent, over-the-top carnival ride. It’s not superficial because it can’t muster anything better. It’s superficial because it damn well wants to be, and knows how to do that in the most entertaining fashion.
Horror-leaning shows like Supernatural and Under the Dome do little justice to the genre by watering it down for television, each bizarre and freaky element carefully explained to us and kept within predictable limits. More adventurous shows like True Blood are still filled with stupid, naive characters who feel like pawns in their own story so they can guide us through it.
But horror shouldn’t take us by the hand or be drained by standard-issue romances, look-at-me mysteries, or any other traditional TV fuel. It should say “fuck you, we’re going there, and you need to keep up”.
If FX would allow it, that should be American Horror Story’s tagline. Coven doesn’t gently introduce us to the rules and history of New Orleans’s wiccan subculture, spending a couple of episodes getting us up to speed and throwing in a mysterious murder to remind us of the stakes.
Instead, in only the second scene, teenager Zoe is about to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time when he suddenly starts bleeding from every orifice and dies. Within seconds we see her mother explain that she’s inherited the witching gene, and accidentally killing people during sex is apparently her unique skill. Seconds later, Frances Conroy and some men in black appear to whisk Zoe away to a school for witches in New Orleans. Later, Jessica Lange’s Fiona – the coven’s Supreme – recounts in a quick walk-and-talk how witches moved from Salem to New Orleans, and that’s all the scene-setting we get. American Horror Story doesn’t take your outstretched hand. It sneers at it.
Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk clearly enjoy horror, but they’re not going to waste our time making sure we’re all comfortable with it. They don‘t hold back on content either. I’m amazed at how gruesome American basic cable shows are allowed to be now. Flashbacks to Kathy Bates’s 19th century socialite slave torture feature a man’s pancreas being removed on screen and a slave’s flayed face (yet advertisers won’t let anyone say ‘fuck’). It’s astoundingly graphic and probably my major misgiving about the show so far. Murphy and Falchuk push against normal genre TV limits enough in their script and style. They don’t need to outgore HBO at every turn. (“I see your oesophagus, Game of Thrones, and raise you a pancreas.”)
Surprisingly, American Horror Story isn’t remotely scary, yet I’m not sure it’s even trying to be. Gore is a weak substitute for scares if you’re trying to get under the audience’s skin, but it suits the show’s agenda: spectacle. Batshit moments just keep piling up, yet they’re appropriate and earned because they’ve been there from the beginning. Extravagance is the point, not a sign of desperation. American Horror Story doesn’t indulge in insane twists to write itself out of corners. American Horror Story is happily, gleefully crazy. It’s the reason we’re meant to watch.
How refreshing to watch a show that has no pretence of being anything but a good time. I’m not particularly intrigued about where the story will go. I just suspect that based on these first three episodes, the rest will be unpredictable and nuts and that’s more than enough. A horror show that actually lives up to its nature is so rare that I don’t mind if it’s not deep and meaningful.
In any other show with horror elements, if two teenagers tried to bring a guy one of them used to like back from the dead, the resurrection would be meant to shock and awe us on its own. American Horror Story knows that’s not enough, that it’s tame and familiar and doesn’t fully capture the selfishness of such a decision. Instead, they assemble their dream male body out of the dismembered parts from the frat-boy bus crash he died in. They stick his head on top and resurrect the result. The episode is called “Boy Parts”.
I know, I know.
Fortunately, the show is smart enough to take this somewhere. Every plot thread so far has been about recklessness and the cost of power. So when the Frankensteined Kyle sits, traumatised and speechless, the cost of the show’s insanity is starting to emerge.
If it was purely a romp, Kyle’s return would lead into the next gruesome sequence. Instead, there’s a relatively quiet build-up. Watching this barely-existent guy be led stumbling around is quietly horrifying, not outrageously so like everything else. His silence bubbles away until he lashes out at his sexually abusive mother out of a newfound capacity for vengeance rather than braindead bloodlust.
Whether American Horror Story will pay off this burgeoning recognition of its own excess is the most enticing part of the show. It might go off the rails, the escalating gore and depravity annihilating its self-awareness. But the smart and unusual decision to reset the show with new characters and a new story each season suggests that Murphy and Falchuk know that paying off escalation on this scale season after season is painfully difficult and can be self-defeating. The now-ridiculed True Blood and Dexter discovered this to their cost. That gives Murphy and Falchuk the latitude to ground the excess with a meaningful climactic statement without having to worry about maintaining it next season.
Or it could mean they don’t need to give a shit and can put us on a rollercoaster of meaningless insanity all season. Based on the first three episodes though, that might not be so bad.