Shock Value

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/Courtesy of FX

Now that the fall drama debuts have shaken out, there’s an uncontested winner for the best new series of the season: Homeland, Showtime’s terrific thriller starring Claire Danes as an anti-terrorism expert. It’s a thoughtful update on 24, with less torture porn and a much more nuanced examination of paranoia and trauma, and you should be watching it. Danes has won legitimate praise in her role as a cagey, unstable agent, and Damian Lewis is equally good as the man she can’t stop watching, an American POW who may or may not be a modern Manchurian Candidate.

So why am I writing about American Horror Story instead? The show has been panned by many critics and not just hated—it’s been mocked, it’s been scorned, and praised mostly on the basis that it’s “so bad it’s good.” The online recappers at the A.V. Club gave it a D while claiming they couldn’t stop watching it. But I’m hooked on it as much as I am on Homeland, and I don’t mean that in an ironic way. It’s definitely not because I trust the series’ co-creator, Ryan Murphy, the famously exasperating showrunner of Glee and Nip/Tuck and Popular. He’s a TV-maker who’s shown over and over that he can take a brilliant premise and smash it like a toy he’s gotten tired of.

But he hasn’t run American Horror Story into the ground just yet. Instead, he’s made the one show this season that feels brazen and exciting—hard to look away from and Glee-fully unafraid to offend. The premise is Horror 101: An unhappily married couple, Ben and Vivien Harmon, played by Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton, are fleeing a bad past. Ben, a shrink, cheated with a student; Vivien had a late miscarriage. Along with their sulky teenage daughter, they move into a Los Angeles mansion so caked with tabloid crime that it’s on the route of a local “murder house tour.” Whoops! Murphy makes visual references to seventies horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Halloween, and the goal here isn’t to make you feel smart, it’s to get you squirming: to jump and cringe and laugh.

The first episode accomplished that, sometimes through brute force, and by the time the credits rolled, the plot was rolling: Vivien was pregnant again. By the end of the second episode, murder cultists had tried to stab her to death. But the family can’t move, because they’re in financial trouble, because it would be too stressful while Vivien is pregnant, because their daughter is proud she survived a home invasion, and about twelve other reasons that make no sense. It doesn’t matter: The point is, they’re doomed. They can’t move any more than Gilligan can get off his island.

Meanwhile, every ghost in L.A. has been stirred up by the family’s blend of pregnancy hormones, teenage cutting, and adulterous guilt (Ben seems like he would be loopy even if he weren’t having laudanum slipped into his coffee). It’s impossible to tell who’s real and who’s not: There’s a maid who looks like a seductive man-killer to the husband, a worn-out old woman to the wife (okay, she’s definitely a ghost); a burned man who dreams of being a Hollywood star; and faded belle Jessica Lange, giving speeches about her poison womb and tormenting a daughter with Down syndrome. (It’s the one aspect of the show that crosses the line for me: Down syndrome seems to be some kind of narrative kryptonite for Murphy, the way unattractive women are for David E. Kelley.)

Because the women are so cartoonish and so terrorized, some critics have argued that the show itself is sexist. But I don’t buy it, at least so far. Horror is mostly about women, after all, sometimes about woman-hate (as in Hitchcock) but just as often about organic female fears, the vulnerability of having a body that can be broken into, invaded—“Your body is like an aging house,” Vivien’s OB/GYN told her in the first episode, and she’s offended. But honestly, he was just diagnosing her genre: In horror movies, pregnancy is demonic rape and adolescence is demonic possession. This may be greasy material, but it’s powerful because it speaks both to women’s nightmares and their fantasies—in a way that is not unconnected to the allure of Lifetime Television and Law & Order: SVU. Connie Britton’s character may not be the strong, sassy wife she played in Friday Night Lights, but that’s because there’s nothing warm and realistic about American Horror Story. It’s an allegory about worst-case scenarios, like, say, being impregnated by a demon wearing a full-body black-latex fetish suit just as you’re trying to repair your marriage.

As that example demonstrates, the show is defiantly absurd (episodes swing from scenes that spook you to ones that make you laugh for the wrong reasons, another horror tradition), but that coarseness only adds to its appeal. The camera dives into every scene like a bird that’s crashed through a window. McDermott is hilariously pompous and way too naked. Lange (who owns this show) delivers lines like “You think I want to stay in this world of death and rot and regret?” with absolute conviction. The show wires together dozens of stories but leaves the ends frayed: A father murders his family, twin bullies are lured to their deaths, the ghostly wife of an abortionist has designs on Vivien’s fetus. There’s a demon in the basement, and a boy planning a school massacre. Flashbacks mash together so sloppily that a sequence in which McDermott’s pregnant lover gets bludgeoned to death, then buried under a gazebo, is practically an afterthought.

In one of the show’s most startling scenes, a newly pregnant Vivien goes on that “murder house tour” of L.A. The tour director drives to the sites of famous scandals, arriving at a house where a doctor once sewed bat-winged pigs in the basement, or something like that. As the guide finishes up his spiel, Vivien looks down and sees a splash of bright red in the crotch of her white pants. She jumps out, and when the guide calls after her, she screams back, “It’s my house!”—and runs toward the door. I laughed and gasped. The show may be ridiculous, but the humiliation and panic feel real. And there’s something to be said for surprise.

American Horror Story
Wednesdays at 10 p.m. FX.

Shock Value