TV Discussion: Season 1 of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story (2011)

  • Monthly Theme: Families in Perilamerican-horror-story-poster
  • The Show: American Horror Story
  • Season: 1 (Murder House)
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of season debut: October 5, 2011
  • No. of episodes: 12
  • Channel: FX Network
  • Production Companies: Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision, et al.
  • Series creators: Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk
  • Directors: Ryan Murphy, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Bradley Buecker, David Semel, Michael Uppendahl, Tim Hunter, Miguel Arteta, John Scott, Michael Lehmann.
  • Executive Producers: Dante Di Loreto, Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk
  • Writers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Jennifer Salt, James Wong, Tim Minear, Jessica Sharzer.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Jessica Lange. Character actor Denis O’Hare. TV stars Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Zachary Quinto, Frances Conroy and Lily Rabe.
  • Awards?: Best Screenplay [Sharzer] at the 2011 Bram Stoker Awards. Outstanding Performance [Lange] and Best Genre Series at the 2011 Satellite Awards. Best Performance [Lange] at the 2012 18th Screen Actors Guild Awards, the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards and the 69th Golden Globe Awards. Best Directing [Murphy] and Best Performance [Lange] at the 2012 PAAFTJ Television Awards.
  • The Lowdown: The show is a new kind of horror anthology series, in which a story plays out over the course of an entire 12-episode season, rather than every episode featuring a new story.  The first season, which got solid ratings and a lot of cultural buzz (including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Series), dealt with a family of East-Coasters moving into a haunted L.A. mansion. Ben (Dylan McDermott) is a shrink who had fucked a grad student (Kate Mara) back in Boston right around the time his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) miscarried. They move to L.A. with their moody teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) in an attempt to “start over.” But the mansion is teeming with the unquiet spirits of all the people who have died in the house – a Columbine-style mass murdering teen (Evan Peters), an unhappily-partnered gay couple (Teddy Sears and Zachary Quinto), a mad doctor and his damaged wife (Matt Ross and Lily Rabe), etc. Meanwhile, the woman next door – a faded Southern belle named Constance (Jessica Lange, who won a Golden Globe for the role) – and a sinister burn victim (Denis O’Hare) both complicate matters. Oh and there’s a mysterious housemaid who “comes with the house” and appears as a dowdy old maid (Frances Conroy) when women see her and as a skanky young chanteuse (Alexandra Breckenridge) when men see her. Beyond that, I can’t even being to summarize what the show is about.

If you haven’t seen American Horror Story: Murder House our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: I honestly don’t even know where to start with this show. I feel overwhelmed even trying to think about it.

Kristine: Well, let me say this. I know it is flawed but I loved watching it, and I watched the entire season in two nights, which is very rare for me. Usually it takes me 5 years to get through one TV season.

Sean: What was it that made you love it?

Kristine: I think the “everything and the kitchen sink” gonzo approach was what made it possible to watch so much in so little time. Also, I think the acting is really good. The soapy-ness of it, I love.

Sean: I know, I read the Wikipedia synopsis of the season to refresh my memory (I watched these episodes as they aired, so it’s been like 4 months since I’ve seen the early ones) and I was dying about how many things I’d forgotten. Like the Black Dahlia stuff, and Violet luring that mean girl to the basement to be face-raped, and J-Lange’s skeevy boytoy and Sgt. Jungle Fever. I had just forgotten all of that.

Kristine: I also think we need to talk about Ryan Murphy. He is a… something. I watched Nip/Tuck but I do not watch Glee. I don’t follow his career, but I get the impression that he’s a terrible person? Even though I enjoyed Nip/Tuck and loved American Horror Story. Why do I feel that way?

Sean: What about his movies? Eat Pray Love? Running with Scissors?

Kristine: Didn’t see either, but puke anyway. Is he a problem gay?

Sean: I have no idea about him except that he is bald and “obnoxious.” I just think he is a situation.

Kristine: Well. The one piece of media I have read about him was that he DENIED the Beetlejuice homage in the American Horror Story finale, which is such a lie.

Sean: I don’t know but I am just so over the whole gay showrunner zeitgeisty thing. This whole thing that popped up in the last 10 years of like, a weird loser angry gay making a hit tv show and then being a beast to the world. Darren Starr and Michael Patrick King on Sex and the City. Marc Cherry on Desperate Housewives. Alan Ball on Six Feet Under and True Blood. Maybe I am just reacting to the way the media covers these people, but there’s something highly obnoxious about them all.

Kristine: I kind of love that concept of “meany-gay becomes high-powered TV curmudgeon.” Ryan Murphy is like, “I’m a provocateur. I am causing a commotion.”

Sean: Well, is American Horror Story more successful than Nip/Tuck was? I have to say, I always found Nip/Tuck to be freakish and not in a good way.

Kristine: I think yes, AHS is better. I watched Nip/Tuck, but I kind of hated myself for watching it. So, I heard that AHS was modeled after Dark Shadows. Which is what true-boyfriends-forever Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are remaking, yes? I have never seen an episode, are you familiar?

Sean: Yes. When I was a twisted 12-year-old I rented like 30 tapes full of Dark Shadows episodes and I religiously watched the ‘90s reboot with Joanna Going and Barbara Steele (and a baby Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which was cancelled halfway into the first season.

Kristine: Why is Dark Shadows having a moment now?

Sean: It isn’t having a moment, I don’t think. It’s just those freaks talking about it. I am actually tentatively hopeful that Dark Shadows will be a return to form for Tim Burton, but maybe it will just be another Alice/Wonka sideshow. I hope not. His last decent movie: Ed Wood, back in 1994. [Editor’s Note: Apparently, Dark Shadows IS having a moment right now, as the latest episode of This American Life dedicates an entire segment to a Dark Shadows convention.]

Kristine: And we have another connection, because of the Dark Shadows/Ryan Murphy/Tim Burton/Beetlejuice thing. React to Ryan Murphy denying he was referencing Beetlejuice in the finale.

Sean: I didn’t even think about it, but it makes sense when you say it. I don’t know, that ending was just so weird with them all gathering around the Christmas tree and stuff.

The rumor is Ryan Murphy won Denis O’Hare from Alan Ball in a slap-fight, and so Ball had O’Hare’s True Blood character buried alive out of spite.

Kristine: Hmmm. Okay, here is something – the only shows I always watch the opening credits of? 1. American Horror Story. 2. Dexter. 3. Downton Abbey. What do you think of AHS title sequence and music?

Sean: I think the AHS titles are really great, and I am a snobby picky bitch about titles.

Kristine: Me too. Scary and over the top and ridic and gross and perfect (Dexter‘s are still the best though).

Sean: Dexter‘s are good, admittedly, but… Worst title sequences of all time? 1. Carnivále. 2. Justified. 3. Sons of Anarchy.

Kristine: Oh, I love Carnivále’s credits. Don’t watch the other two. Do you think American Horror Story can maintain?

Sean: Well, you heard about how Season 2 will be a totally new story with an almost entirely new cast. So each season of the show will be self-contained.

Let me save you a whole season’s worth of anxiety: Connie Britton’s fluffy dog survives, but Dylan’s porkpie hat? Vanishes mysteriously.

Kristine: Yes, though some of the Season 1 cast may return, but playing totally new characters. I hope J-Lange comes back. And, while we are on the subject of maintaining quality, do you like the show? You haven’t really said.

Sean: I also want J-Lange back.

Kristine: She was… fucking incredible.

Sean: I have very, very mixed feelings about the show.

Kristine: Tell me everything.

Sean: I will say that Season 2 makes me excited. I am impressed at the ambition of that plan.

Kristine: Yeah, me too.

Sean: No one has ever tried anything like that.

Kristine: Really? (trying to think)

Sean: I mean, a show that changes each season? No. There have been anthologies, but… So my thoughts on American Horror Story are this: there were individual elements that I really loved, like J-Lange.

Kristine: I heard that Ryan Murphy’s mom was a beauty queen who gave it all up to raise a family. I think she was the inspiration for J-Lange’s fantastic character, Constance.

Sean: And I also really, really loved Taissa Farmiga actually.

Kristine: Violet was great.

Jessica Lange’s Golden Globe-winning post-coital glow.

Sean: And then… naked Teddy Sears. Just Teddy Sears in general was amazing to look at.

Kristine: Who is that?

Sean: Um…. Spock’s hot boyfriend?

Kristine: Oh, the blond guy?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Can we address the gays?

Sean: I don’t know, can we? I mean…. Here’s the thing: It would be so easy to be offended by the show.

Kristine: Can we address how R-Murph has violent anal sex/rape in both Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story?

Sean: I am, however, not offended by the show because I see it as operating in a camp tradition and that’s why all the gays and women are batshit crazy. It’s all very Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Kristine: I agree with that. One thing I think the show does well is really capture the pain in the relationships of all the house’s inhabitants, even though we meet them very briefly. All the couples/families who come to live in the house are damaged well, well before they take occupancy. I think that was well done. It kind of reminds me of the puzzle box in Hellraiser – you know, you choose the object/house well before it chooses you.

Sean: Ok, who would you nominate as the show’s Most Inconsequential Performer? I know mine.

Kristine: Most Inconsequential? Let me think… Can we go through them in a timeline? First owners were Dr. Montgomery and wife – and I thought Matt Ross was scary as fuck. But part of his scariness was holdover from his days as Albie Grant on Big Love. Who comes after them? The nurses? Then Constance?

I’m shopping this image to birth control companies for a new ad campaign.

Sean: I think.

Kristine: Then the gays?

Sean: Well, my most hated character = BurnFace, and I thought he lived in the house at some point?

Kristine: I was going to say him.

Sean: 2nd most hated = Kate Mara.

Kristine: Kate Mara was my least enjoyable character, for sure. I have a question about the house. Why can Tate leave the house when the other ghosties can’t?

Sean: Because he doesn’t realize he’s dead?

Kristine: Oh, ok.

Sean: Or something. Also he’s a demon?

Kristine: But Violet didn’t either and she was trapped…

Sean: Yeah it makes no sense. Because he sucked off Ryan Murphy to get the role? [Editor’s Note: It’s been brought to our attention that Tate actually never does leave the house except on Halloween night, when ALL the ghosts can leave. Our bad.]

Kristine: Remember that scene of her trying to get out and going in circles? That was really scary and sad to me.

Sean: I loved that circle scene.

Kristine: And Violet’s corpse was terrible. It was scary, Sean.

Sean: It was awesome. Violet is just great. That could have been such an annoying character.

Kristine: The circle scene was the scariest part of the whole show for me. It was very Twilight Zone and awful and mental illness.

Sean: The scariest part of the whole show for me was… the ginger twins.

Kristine: They were awesomely awful. I wish there had been more of the Montgomerys’ Frankenbaby.

Sean: I actually loved when the ultrasound technician fainted. I thought that was the perfect blend of camp and actually scary.

Kristine: So, can we talk about the show’s politics?

What’s more shocking: that Zachary Quinto’s “Evil Condom” body double is a woman, or that Teddy Sears needs head support to cut his toenails?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Well, all of the couples have had some sort of moral failing on one of the partner’s parts. Right? And it is all very tied to money and greed. All the couples have financial issues that keep them trapped in the house, except for the nurses (who were the weakest link for me now that I think of it).

Sean: You know I didn’t even think of those things. The show is just like, women are gooey drippy vaggies and we hate them. I am freaked out by how much the show is obsessed with reproduction and babies and abortions and shit like that. See, the psychology of any of the relationships were so so so so so so so uninteresting to me. The gays all being like, “I’m not into leather, I like latex.” Or whatever. “Now I’m stuck with your cheatin’ heart for eternity.” I feel like the show is most powerful with the straight up body horror stuff.

Kristine: Well, the Montgomerys – the doctor is a drug addict and the wife a spendthrift which leads them to financial troubles, so they go into the back alley abortion business. Both the Harmons and the gays have infidelity in their relationships and all their money tied up in the house so they are stuck there… and with each other.

Sean: So, monogamy is hell, I guess?

A shockingly high percentage of this show’s runtime is dedicated to watching Connie Britton treat her matronly real estate broker like shit. So zeitgeisty!

Kristine: Also true for Contance and her man – remember her passed out with all the bills around her? Well, it reminded me powerfully of this thing I heard on NPR about how when the country is in a recession, divorce rates go down because people can’t afford it, and domestic violence skyrockets. When people have money, they divorce and don’t kill one another.

Sean: Huh.

Kristine: I think R-Murph is trying to say something about American today. And also skewer yuppiedom – Vivian and the “pasta arm”??? How she is all organic but lives in a fucking haunted house that will kill her? It’s hilarious.

Sean: Brain eating. I was fascinated by the way Vivian treated the realtor.

Kristine: How did you feel about the opening of the show – Adelaide and the ginger twins and “You’re gonna die in there”?

Sean: I like barely even remember it.

Kristine: I thought it was total real estate porn – while the gingers are vandalizing the house, a million yuppies (and me) were dying over the Tiffany lamps they were bashing.

Sean: I would buy that.

American Horror Story’s most successful audience provocation: It’s a recession, but don’t you WISH this was your kitchen?

Kristine: I mean, did you love the house?

Sean: I’m sure there could be a very cool analysis done just on the show’s use of space and the idea of the “house” in American life and stuff.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: That Violet scene is a good example of the domestic space as an existentialist crisis.

Kristine: Right, because it can be seen as agoraphobia, too, right?

Sean: I wanna do WTF moments. 1. The mom from Six Feet Under spitting out a mouthful of that weird Iranian’s spunk.

Kristine: That slimy real estate investor guy.

Sean: Ruth Fisher, cum-guzzler.

Why do you think that when I Googled “American Horror Story blowjob” THIS is the image that popped up? I want an explanation.

Kristine: Oh, I know. I am torn on that character.

Sean: Kristine what the hell did you make of the moment when Dylan McDermott finally sees her as old and she’s all, “Now you’re learning!” I mean, what the heck was the point of that?

Kristine: I actually thought it didn’t work. I wanted to love that character. And I like the idea that horny men see what they want. But… it didn’t work for me.

Sean: A million straight men wanting to fuck that actress irritates me.

Kristine: I didn’t care about her, I just pitied her, which is a different thing, you know?

Sean: She is like, bargain basement Angelina Jolie eyeroll. That particular form of titillation is annoying.

Kristine: I cared about Constance and was interested in Constance much more than victim maid.

Sean: Constance rocked, fucking her skeevy boytoy? Locking Downsie in the closet?

Kristine: I thought her post mortem convo with Adelaide was amazing and made me cry, via that medium?

Sean: Right. Yeah, she was amazing. She was so Bette Davis/Joan Crawford awesomeness. She was the sickness.

So this is the weird Iranian who blows his spunk into the mouth of the mom from Six Feet Under.

Kristine: I also was very moved when she gave Adelaide her “pretty girl” costume. Adelaide in the closet was so so so upsetting. Number 2 on the upsetting list after Violet trapped in the No Exit existential circle.

Sean: Can you please react to the fatty from Modern Family saying “Here, piggy piggy” to his own reflection?

Kristine: “Piggy piggy” was, for me, so Nip/Tuck. Do you think Frances Conroy was cast because Ryan Murphy knew people would have Ruth Fisher associations, thus making her role more upsetting?

Sean: Probably, I mean he did all kinds of sick things with Vanessa Redgrave on Nip/Tuck, right? Like her child molester lover?

Kristine: Next WTF moment?

Sean: Dentist raping Black Dahlia.

Kristine: Meh. Tate raping Vivien?

Sean:I actually think the most upsetting moment was the rubber condom raping my beloved Teddy Sears with a poker.

Teddy Sears’ rear steers queers to shed tears.

Kristine: That was… difficult. What about Tate trying to seduce Teddy Sears later?

Sean: Gross. I thought Teddy Sears grabbing Dylan McDermott’s package in the bathroom was hella sexy.

Kristine: Address: Beauregard.

Sean: I don’t know what “Bootergate” is.

Kristine: Constance’s other son who lived in the attic and Burnface smothered with a pillow. He jumps out at Hispanic Hottie?

Sean: Oh I like attic mongoloids. I am always in favor of a hideous mongoloid spicing things up.

Kristine: What do make of the hetero men always being absent when their wives are in mortal danger? I agree that R-Murph is telling us monogamy sucks, relationships suck, and you can’t trust it! Which made the finale flawed, I think.

Sean: I just wish that the mongoloid had more scary times to do, because I am scared of them (see the Baby Ruth-eating creature from The Goonies or the hatched-faced killer from Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse). A massively deformed gimp rushing out of the shadows is my worst nightmare, all drooling and spooging and breathing hotly.

Kristine: What’s scarier – Frankenbaby or Beauregard? Why wasn’t there more Franknbaby?

Sean: I don’t remember a Frankenbaby. Did Albie kiss it?

Kristine: The Montgomery’s baby? That lives in the basement and claws people’s throats out?????

Sean: Oh that’s what face-raped the mean girl.

Kristine: Yes

Sean: Yeah that is gnarly and I don’t want it looking at me.

Kristine: And ripped out the ginger twins’ throats and killed the exterminator.


Sean: I don’t remember all this craziness.

Kristine: Well, you are forgiven, that show piles it on.

Sean: I just remember Kate Mara running around, flinging and shrieking like a harpy.

Kristine: She was stupid. Did you feel empathy for Tate?

Sean: I felt almost no empathy for Taint.

Kristine: Okay, I have questions for you. Question 1: Would you want to be trapped in the American Horror Story house with Teddy Sears forever and all time, knowing he was unfaithful?

Sean: I wouldn’t care about faithfulness, I would videotape all his trysts and start an Internet porn empire. But I wouldn’t want to be trapped with anyone for eternity. Unless it was my dogs.

Kristine: Eternity = scary. Which was why you felt terrible for all the souls trapped in the house. Did you love the Halloween episode, when all the ghosts could leave the house… and Teddy Sears cruised the bars, and was like, “Sorry, honey, I couldn’t help myself.”

Sean: I forgot about that detail, but it sounds great. That Gay Spock was horrid and deserved to be cheated on basically. All, “we must pick out colors for the nursery! I am trying to make this house BEEEEEEEEYOOUUUUUUTIFULLLLLL for “us!” Anytime someone is mad about something they’re doing for “us,” it’s time to show them the door.

Kristine: I loved it when Spock and J-Lange got into it, though. Bitch fight extraordinaire.

Who would win in a cage match: Addy or Corky from Life Goes On?

Sean: About who gets to keep the baby? Yeah that was fun but I wish she had like, exorcised him into oblivion.

Kristine: So, I have stated that I really enjoyed the show even though it was problematic. The ending I had a real problem with. The whole show was about how relationships are fucked up, family is fucked up, monogamy is fucked up, the American dream is inherently fucked up.

Sean: Right, it is kind of subversive and anti-mainstream-family-values.

Kristine: And then the ending seems to confirm the values the entire show has been critiquing and making a mockery of.

Sean: I was just thinking that. Well, I think it was supposed to be this twist of: It took death to make them a happy family.

Kristine: It takes all these sacred notions – about motherhood, monogamy, home ownership – and shows them to be monstrous and destructive.

Sean: I think we’re supposed to believe that Connie and Dylan won’t wind up like the gays, hating each other for eternity? It’s like, they were so fucked up and dysfunctional in real life, it’s only in this other constructed reality outside of time that they can be “good.”

Kristine: I agree with your read, but I still wasn’t happy with the ending.

Sean: But can I just point out what a raw deal Connie gets? Having to take care of an infant for all eternity? Who would want that? I call it the Marge Simpson dilemma.

Kristine: Connie gets the shit end of the stick for sure. I prefer Tate’s ending – forever bitter and angry and destructive despite craving love and approval.

Sean: But ick. No. The show turns Tate into a martyr all silently suffering and being like, I know I am not good enough for her. The show totally fetishizes Tate.

Um…. American Horror FOREHEAD.

Kristine: I don’t think he will silently suffer. I think he will continue to ruin everyone’s deal and wreak havoc. And I like that.

Sean: Yeah, but there was too much of a note of “doomed hero” to his ending and it made me pissed. Tate is despicable and vile.

Kristine: I think the “Problematic Martyr” award goes to Moira the maid. She is given no interior life, she is just a victim. And I hate how she is placated by being made the honorary aunt by the family.

Sean: It is kind of dumb.

Kristine: That’s all she needs to be happy? Take care of someone’s elses bratty perma-baby? I feel bad for the baby.

Sean: So what did you think of the very, very end? The living twin killing the nanny? Were you scared of that killer toddler, all bloody and wearing dungarees?

Kristine: I mean, I saw it coming but it was fun and way better then how the Harmons ended up. It was the gonzo black comedy that made the show fun! I loved how Constance looked at the toddler murderer covered in blood and was like, “Oh, you!”

Sean: I thought he was going to tear J-Lange’s throat out and eat her face.

Kristine: No, that’s his gammy.

Sean: She is totally going to fuck that baby when it gets older.

Kristine: Yes, she will mate with the baby. Or bring home girls and watch him have sex with them.

Sean: Oh that’s what she’ll do. And be like, let me show you how to masturbate.

Kristine: Okay, I am going to list the top 3 most upsetting/scary moments for me and then you do it. 1. J-Lange locking Pretty Girl in the closet of mirrors. 2. Violet being trapped in the house, running around in a circle – then discovering her own corpse with all the bugs in her mouth. I think 3 was… the Frankenbaby ripping throats out.

Sean: Those are all good ones.

Kristine: What are yours?

Sean: Well, wait, I don’t think I was actually scared ever. But there were ones that made me upset so I’ll go with those.

Kristine: I was scared sometimes… Like I said, I watched the whole season over the course of 2 long, late nights when I was on vacation. Around 3 in the morning I was getting squirrely and looking under the couch and stuff.

The show’s ridiculous grungey Kurt Cobain-meets-Teddy-Ruxpin dirty Converse-wearing misfit sociopath boy ingenue.

Sean: #1 My beautiful Teddy Sears being poker-raped. #2 is Violet dead mouth. That was great. It reminded me of the dead girl in the closet at the beginning of The Ring. Naomi Watts’ niece.

Kristine: Oh agreed – which was by far the scariest part of that movie and an indelible image.

Sean: Yes. Very good corpse makeup. And I think #3 is the fainting ultrasound tech. I really like how that made me feel.

Kristine: What about Tate raping Vivien? He Tate-raped her.

Sean: Well… I am going to be controversial. I was annoyed that they kept calling it rape. Can you believe me?

Kristine: I can believe you. I have known you and your ways for a long time. So it’s not rape because she enjoyed it?

Sean: Well, it was consensual. What Tate did is totally warped and wrong, and it IS a violation but as far as I know, rape is non-consensual. I know I’m splitting hairs here, but it bugged me.

Kristine: I know what you mean. Misrepresentation is not rape.

Sean: Yes. It is some other heinous act.

Kristine: You can still be pissed as fuck.

Sean: I would be. But it made me mad about the r-word being tossed around willy nilly. That is a word you don’t toss around (I also think people overuse “racist,” “misogynist,” and “homophobic” a ton).

Kristine: I don’t know though – legally, I mean. Cause they were in her house and she had an expectation that only her family would be in the house. You know? But I was surprised that the show just roundly called it rape.

Sean: Teddy Sears was raped. He was the show’s rape victim And I actually think the show really trivialized that. If Vivien had been anally raped with a poker? And the show just shrugged and was like, on to the next scene? would have crashed overnight.

Kristine: I agree that Teddy Sears’ very violent rape was trivialized. But the Tate/Vivian violation was still totally effed.

Sean: I agree. Well, also that whole scene was so incongruous anyway.

Kristine: I mean, all of a sudden your husband is dressed up in a latex kink suit? After you have been celibate and only just broke your celibacy? And you are just like, “Oh, kinky? You’re ready for round 2?” That is not how people behave.

Sean: I would not ever assume a mute freak in a suit was my boyfriend. I would be like, “Prove it’s you, immediately!”

Kristine: Right. I would not assume that either. No one would.

Sean: Yeah it was the shittiest thing.

I have no memory at all of this lace-wearing John McCain monster. On any other show, this would be THE ONLY thing I would remember.

Kristine: So, the question is… did part of Vivien know it was not Ben? Or is it just bad writing?

Sean: And Kristine. The way they marketed the show, with that evil condom man menacing a prostrate women on a red background?

Kristine: Oh, I know.

Sean: That is supposed to be Vivien. They used that whole thing as a way to titillate us.

Kristine: Yeah, it’s dumb and misleading and gross.

Sean: It is kind of despicable when you think about it. Like, “the Gimp Rape Happy Hour!” Come watch, America.

Kristine: But you have to admit… visually striking.

Sean: Um…. totally goth and silly. It looks like a Nine Inch Nails video from 1994. No strike that: a Marilyn Manson video from 2000.

Kristine: The similarities between Rubber Man and THE CARVER from Nip/Tuck made Rubber Man laughable to me. Like, totally a recycled character, right?

Sean: The Carver.

Kristine: O.M.F.G., remember?

Sean: A penis-less incest rapist…

Kristine: Including anal rape.

Sean: …who carved up people’s faces into gaping vag-holes.

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: I mean, here’s what I’m curious about. Why did American Horror Story work? I mean, it’s a huge success and not just ratings wise, awards wise as well. Why did Nip/Tuck not work but this does?

Kristine: Jessica Lange.

Sean: Do you really think it is all J-Lange?

Kristine: Okay, this feels very preachy, and NPR-like, but I really think it speaks to very topical social woes.

Sean: Like, the real estate market? So much of the show is about the tension of trying to sell a house in a bad economy.

If you don’t want to slap his evil little Nazi face, then you’re also a Nazi.

Kristine: Remember when I was talking about how recessions bring about domestic violence and strife? I think the American Dream and the American Family are, you know, “under attack” (though not in the way Republicans believe) and this show taps into that, but in a super fun, soapy, ridiculous way.

Sean: Under attack by downsies and faggots and nancyboys, you mean?

Kristine: Ahem. Well, that brings me to the one segment of American Horror Story which really didn’t work for me which was the nurses/Manson thing, because it was lacking that claustrophobic, family-gone-wrong tension that the other residents of the house had.

Sean: Are you referring to Episode 2, when there’s the whole home invasion? Whoever that actress was who played the ringleader of the home invaders, she is the posterchild for inbreeding.

Kristine: I like the idea of “murder house” and all, but that segment didn’t work for me.

Sean: I mean, you do realize that every single setpiece from the entire show is lifted almost completely intact from horror movies, right? Like, there is not a single original image or setpiece in the show.

Kristine: No, I didn’t realize that. Explain.

Sean: Like that Episode 2 home invasion. That was the Bryan Bertino movie The Strangers from 2008 with Liv Tyler, which is considered a contemporary little horror gem.

Kristine: Oh, okay. Of course I have not seen that.

Sean: It is basically a reimagining of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils, which we watched, remember? The French couple under siege by killer kids?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: But in The Strangers, the home invaders are wearing the same masks as the punks from American Horror Story. And there’s a lead girl, just like on the show…

Kristine: But admit the nurses were dumb and not compelling.

Sean: Well, weren’t they only in that one stinger before the credits?

Kristine: They came back at ghosts a couple times.

Sean: Totally. The nurses to me were just blah ridiculousness and like, the show being Amy Winehouse retro. I’ll give the show this: they use great fonts. All their intertitles have cool fonts.

Kristine: You give great font, Ryan Murphy. The dude who did the title sequence is famous. He did the sequences for 7even and The Walking Dead.

So, this character’s only purpose is to threaten Dylan McDermott’s sense of his own masculinity by being bigger, badder and blacker than he is, and THAT my friends is what we call “a problem.”

Sean: But Kristine, here is my question: The whole show is just pastiche.

Kristine: So, is that why you think the show is a success? Because it is a pastiche of known motifs and images and thus people instantly relate and love?

Sean: I think most people watching it don’t realize they’re watching a pastiche.

Kristine: Not being aware doesn’t mean you aren’t relating it to previously seen media on a subconscious level, right? Just part of the cultural fabric.

Sean: I’ll concede that. I was just thinking about how Quentin Tarantino gets accused of pastiche and not original filmmaking. Avid lovers of classic exploitation and B-movies sometimes resent Tarantino for that. And also a lot of highbrow critics dismiss him out of hand for a host of different reasons. And so I’m wondering what are your thoughts on the highly referential, lifting things from all the movies you love thing.

Kristine: Oh, I am firmly in the camp of “If it works, then I am all for it.” This is a huge issue in the fine art world now, by the way.

Sean: I guess I feel like Tarantino pulls it off in a way that American Horror Story doesn’t, but I can’t articulate why. I mean even Tate’s school shooting episode was just a more lurid take on Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Tell me about the fine art world.

Kristine: Oh, well, just issues of copyright and using existing images in new works of art. Lots of legal issues coming up. That’s not really new. But what IS new is that appropriation used to be more of a marginal/outsider artist thing, and now big name, big money artists like Richard Prince have made their careers doing it.

Sean: A-ha, so now it’s all mainstream.

Kristine: Yeah, and so people are getting pissier, because there is $$$ involved. But younger artists, who grew up with the Internet don’t even get the concept of intellectual property. I mean, all imagery is available to them, and they consider it all part of the public domain and fodder for their own artwork.

Sean: It’s like fine art piracy. This is like all the SOPA/PIPA stuff and the angst over our new generational attitudes towards music and tv shows and stuff.

Kristine: Also I think so much of art – whether visual art or media like American Horror Story – is essentially pastiche and also a “reaction to” existing artifacts.

Sean: Doesn’t Vik Muniz like do Mona Lisa in talcum powder and peanut butter and jelly?

Kristine: Yes, Mona Lisa in PB&J. I love Vik Muniz. He came to the Center for Creative Photography when I was a student worker there.

Sean: Yeah, I want to be pro-pastiche but I guess… I don’t know, with horror movies, I feel more proprietary.

Kristine: Like I said, if it works, then I have no problem, but it can feel lazy sometimes, especially in the contemporary art world.

Sean: What do you think about the controversy about the score for The Artist? Did you hear what Kim Novak said?

Kristine: Oh, I think she is being a crank and no one cares. That’s homage.

Fine, this image is from “The Help.” Sue me.

Sean: Then is American Horror Story homage?

Kristine: I don’t know enough about horror to say – what do you think?

Sean: I think it is in some ways, but it makes me mad.

Kristine: I mean, let me ask you this: Do you think there are even “new” directions to go in horror? When we first started horror movie club, you came up with a list of sub-genres of horror. My question is, is it possible to make a horror movie that would not fit into any of those categories? Or will any movie be derivative of something?

Sean: Yes, it is totally possible.

Kristine: Well, sell me on what a totally original horror movie would be. That isn’t werewolves, or vampires, or giant monsters, or psychological horror, or hauntings, or cursed objects, or nature run amok, or body horror. I don’t know if it is possible.

Sean: I don’t know it hasn’t been done yet. Ok maybe I was just being glib. Here’s the thing and the problem: that list of all those sub-genres and stuff, to me, represents all these different “traditions” in horror, all these different approaches that have their own risks and rewards and I think you’re right that art (pop or fine) always works in some kind of dialogue with a tradition.It’s just that, with horror, it often feels like there will be 2 or 3 zeitgeist-approved traditions that are “allowed” at any given moment.

Kristine: Exactly, and I would add that this is the case for all art forms. Please give an example.

Sean: And the truth is, there are so many different traditions to choose from. What’s disappointing is how limited the imagination of the market is and how intolerant the market is of un-zeitgeisty traditions.

Kristine: Well, is that lack of imagination or is it about money and marketing?

Sean: And I’m sure that this is true in the art world. To use a dumb example because I am ignorant of the art world, but say that still lifes of fruit were once all the rage – say in the 1800s –  but now they’re not popular so no one does them. And then it’s like, you want do still lifes of fruit? There’s no market for that.

Kristine: Right, totally.

Sean: So, for example right now we have a million iterations of vampires and zombies because those are “zeitgeist-approved.”

Kristine: But that’s the big question – is there something tangible in the cultural atmosphere (like, critical mass) where things are popular for a reason? Like still lifes of fruit or zombies? Or is it all marketing and money?

Sean: This may sound dumb, but when’s the last time someone really tried a new spin on, say, mummies, or something? Or tried to do an amazing killer ants movie? Or killer bees? There’s actually never been a definitive killer bees movie.

Kristine: I don’t get the difference between mummies and zombies, but I know what you are saying. Right now, the things I see over and over in horror are: zombies, vampires, and POV-haunting type things.

Sean: I mean, Psycho is the perfect example. A whole branch of cinema born by accident. Hitchcock asked Stanford to study the reaction to Psycho because he was so not expecting it and was like, why the hell is this popular?

Kristine: Well, I remember when The Blair Witch Project launched a million articles and studies, right? But don’t you think this a weakness of all media, not just horror?

Sean: Yes it is.

Kristine: Or do you think horror is particularly guilty of this?

Sean: I feel confident saying horror is really guilty of more of a limited imagination since a lot of it is churned out so fast. For example, in music? There’s a million different kinds of things happening right now – Joanna Newsom’s harpist-elf-goddess thing and synthpunk and ‘90s rebirth bands like Yuck and a thousand strains of hip-hop and new iterations of bluegrass and it just goes on forever. But direct-to-DVD horror? All those movies are based on the 5 same ideas, over and over. Even in theatrical: this year is The Devil Inside, last year it was The Rite, in 2010 it was The Last Exorcism, etc. All the same shitty subpar rip-off of The Exorcist films.

Kristine: It’s what’s selling right now.

Sean: But with American Horror Story, is it really ambition driving it, or just post-modern pastichery? Is it just a series of empty signifiers of better, older works? Or is it just spazzy, attention deficit, throw everything at the wall.

Kristine: Well, I guess we will see next season, right? I mean, they threw so much into this season – will they be able to make next season new and different? I’m real curious to see if it is successful.

Sean: Their plan for next year does sound ambitious, but I wonder if it will be the same lurid family melodrama or a totally new vibe. I will be disappointed if it is the same series of shock tactics and Grand Guignol as the first season was. Last question: Why do you think the show tried so hard to incorporate “real” things?  Like, the Black Dahlia and the Manson family and stuff?

What are the odds that this scene was borne from the notes of an unhappily married FX executive?

Kristine: I think that was just shorthand for setting time periods: 1940s, 1960s, etc. They’re cultural touchstones that everyone knows.

Sean: Well, I just want to say that I did enjoy the show for as much as it frustrated me. I would rather shows have these kinds of problems then other kinds of problems.

Kristine: Me, too.

Sean: I mean it just fucking went for it.

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: So, I like that. Let me ask you this: Besides J-Lange, who would you most like to see pop up as a new character in Season 2?

Kristine: Hmm…. It might be fun to see Connie Britton as a baddie, not long suffering. You?

Sean: Um…. Teddy Sears. Kristine, Season 2 should be an all-black cast.

Kristine: That would be good.

Sean: I mean if it truly wants to live up to the title American Horror Story then it should be set in the South and be about the black experience. Season 1 was about upper-middle-class whities. Enough. Let’s really see the show explore all of America. Like, set that shit in the ATL.

Kristine: I’m with you.

 Ratings Round-Up

The Girl’s rating: Problematic, but fun as hell!

The Freak’s rating: Problematic, but fun as hell!


25 thoughts on “TV Discussion: Season 1 of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story (2011)

  1. Aaaah, I love you both! This show! This show? OK:

    So my 17 year old sister and I watched the pilot when she came to visit last summer and we were both like um..what was that? It was all jump cuts and Dylan Mcdermott’s ass and confusion. And can I ask- am I the only person in the world who does not love Connie Britton? I’ve never watched Friday Night Lights so that is probably part of it but I just did not love her enough to get over the fact of the way her character is written which is all about form fitting silk blouses and bubble baths and babies. Shut up, Connie Britton! I actually hated her more than Kate Mara who is pretty hateable. BUT. I loved this show.

    So yeah, my sister and I watched the pilot and then I never watched another episode and then 2 months ago my sister told me to watch the rest and so I did. I love everything about it including some stuff I probably shouldn’t. The scene where Violet was running in circles stuck inside the house was so scary and was maybe the one moment I was truly suprised – I had no idea she had died! Moody teenagers and ghosts are so alike. Also, I loved Violet and I loved that she dressed like Veronica from Heathers and I live in envy of her shiny hair. And I guess the whole Heathers wardrobe thing brings up the question of pastiche and homage. So I loved all the really obvious references to horror movie tropes, but I think this works on multiple levels. I talked about it with my sister and there were places where I felt it was very obviously camp and she just had no idea. It wasn’t even nostalgia for her; it was just awesome. Direct references that come to mind: Beetlejuice (and I mean come on, it’s so Beetlejuice, puh-leeze), the Strangers, Halloween, The Shining, Baby Jane, Sunset Boulevard, Gremlins… etc., etc., infinity. But my sister had none of these touchpoints and enjoyed it on a very straight forward, freak-out, gross-out level. I was almost a little jealous that she could do that! I mean, she wasn’t even a year old when Closer came out and she can go and you-tube getting fucked like an animal or whatever, but having that be in constant MTV rotation as a teenager, I would argue, gives you a totally different sensibility.

    Also, I couldn’t help but love Zachary Quinto. I know his character gets shit for being SO on-the-nose but Jessica Lange was too! I mean he is drinking white wine for eternity! That is so deliciously silly.

    Oh there is so much more I want to say but I will end with a little bit of bitchy IMDB style wonk- Tate actually can’t leave the house. The only time he leaves is on Halloween night when all the other ghosts can leave too. (That rule actually solidified my love for the show because Yes! Rules! Horror movie rules are the best.


  2. I am actually old enough to remember ‘Dark Shadows’. Used to watch it in the darkened living room with a sheet over our heads for the scary part. I hope that Tim Burton does NOT make it a Charlie type remake!

    Don’t know if it could happen, but can you guys video your conversations, make it an actual back and forth, with the scenes you’re referencing playing as you discuss them? Your back and forth conversation is really enjoyable to read and would like to see if it can stand up ‘live’. Just a thought!

  3. It breaks my heart that you be dissin’ Connie Britton but I will say this: yes the part she plays on AHS is well-nigh insufferable. You calling her on the carpet for being all “blouses baths and babies” is entirely fair. In fact, one of the things I liked LEAST about the experience of watching the show was witnessing it drag Mrs. Coach (Leah, you HAVE GOT to watch Friday Night Lights!) through the blood, piss, brains and mud. I actually cannot for the life of me imagine how Ryan Murphy pitched the role her. Like, so you’re gonna get raped real good, and then humiliated a lot, and you’ll be a bitch and you’ll waddle about pregnant and then die! Was she THAT desperate to shed her FNL image? I guess the only good part is that I was very worried that she would fall into total obscurity after FNL ended, and so maybe this show helps her not do that. And Kate Mara, UGH! The less said about her, the better.

    I totally take your point about Taylor being able to rock the show without the reference points. It’s like me listening to Native Tongues hip-hop: I get NONE of the classic R&B/jazz sample references, but I still love the music. I guess, then, that I’m going to be arguing (poorly) for something weirdly ineffable: that the SPIRIT of an homage expects and encourages the audience to go back to and seek out the original texts, whereas pastiche is perfectly happy to REPLACE the original texts, or at least overshadow them. I cannot defend this position with any kind of rigor, but it feels right in my gut. There’s something about the spirit of AHS that’s like, “These dummies don’t know, let’s steal this and that and fuck The Shining.” I admire the balls even though it makes me a bit queasy. Also, fucked like an animal? Please take Taylor’s iPhone away from her post-haste.

    Your single point about ZQ swilling chardonnay for eternity nearly redeems him for me.

    As to Tate, good call! I’ll amend that with an editor’s note.

    Lastly, this was the platonic ideal of a page comment. You are fabulous.

  4. I actually want to do either a “prestige month” where we watch 4 international classics, or a prestige sleepover, where Kristine and I rock through them. But I’ve never seen Eyes Without a Face! Can you believe. I also want to us to watch Kwaidan, Onibaba and Ugetsu (for classic Japanese horror) and, of course, Diabolique yo!

  5. Ronald, that is a great idea but then I wouldn’t be able to do the discussions in raggedy jammies, swilling wine!

  6. Leah, you are totally right about Tate leaving the house! After the discussion I was thinking about it again and I realized that the “date night” with Violet was of course on Halloween – which is why the dead high school kids were also out roving the streets.
    Also, totally right on calls on Violet’s style inspiration – especially when she is strolling though high school corridors wearing a man’s hat…WAIT A MINUTE…MYSTERY SOLVED…VIOLET APPROPRIATE BEN’S STUPID PORK PIE HAT!!! Well, maybe not, but if she did she rocked it much better than he did.

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