You’re four or five episodes into a TV show and your friend sits down and asks you to recap. Suddenly you realize you might have to call out of work tomorrow if you want to do a halfway decent job explaining what’s happened so far. This isn’t true of many shows, but it’s true of American Horror Story.
I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about and actually watch AHS. I’d started it before, but between other shows I was following at the time and the TV culture shock you experience when you first watch AHS, I had only gotten a few episodes in, maybe two or three. Here are some of my thoughts after watching the first season: Murder House.
I love it. I can’t speak for the other seasons yet (at the time of writing this I’m about halfway through the second season), but the first season has a wonderful probing depth to it. If it’s anything, it’s original. It’s really not terribly scary, but it magnifies that twisted and psychotic side of humanity that is so often labeled, medicated, and brushed under the rug. It spotlights man’s need to rule, to control, to manipulate, and the horrendous cruelty any who embrace this need are capable of.
American Horror Story is the quintessential binge show. I can’t turn it off. Weird camera angles and flashback sequences immerse you in the world seen through the characters’ eyes. The story only tells you what it wants you to know at that exact moment, and you’re forever left with questions. But the best part is that when these questions are finally answered, it’s in a way that’s so authentic (and often gut-wrenching) that the characters come vibrantly to life—deep, fragile, troubled life—right before your eyes. Before long, they’re hardly even characters anymore. They’re people you know, relate to, people you might befriend.
The viewer experience created in American Horror Story is remarkably engaging and cohesive. Though the how is not always immediately apparent, every quirky little subtlety, each in its own way, paints the larger picture. The cinematography is among the most deliberate and effective I’ve seen anywhere, but particularly among TV shows. You never know what to expect.
American Horror Story isn’t interested in presenting its story in a pretty way. It gives it to you straight, full of the often grisly reality that we so often choose to ignore. The shows enchantment lies elsewhere: in the tragic beauty that arrests your emotions, ties them down, and leaves you alone in a blank room to think and think deeply. 2017 has found our TV screens incessantly bombarded by obnoxiously shallow shows full of contrived characters living facades of lives that would never exist anywhere but on the pages of their in-poor-taste TV script. We’ve lost sight of art, of telling a story with any intrinsic meaning. Murder House throws that out—then retrieves it, drenches it in gasoline, burns it, collects the ashes and throws it away again. Gone is the two-dimensional vanilla character who everyone relates to but no one actually is. Instead, the first season of AHS highlights the dark side of humanity that we try to pretend isn’t there; the sinister lurking side, like a snake hiding under the house—kill or be killed. The gritty reality presented in Murder House is riveting: no matter how much dazzling beauty, there is even more gruesome pain. We may lock our tragedies in a dark basement or bury them under a gazebo, but we are not rid of them so easily. Perhaps we think that surely if we just keep them hidden away, our grotesque misfortunes will never see the light of day. But they fester in the dark, haunting us all the time, seeds of a blasphemous fruit sown in the devil’s garden. In the end we are just feeding the beast within.
I love the characters, and some of them I love because they’re so splendidly detestable. The range is extraordinary. Characters like Tate and Ben and Adelaide have such a depth to them, such a fierce internal war between happiness and torment, psychosis and harmony. If you watch Murder House and don’t find yourself relating to at LEAST one character, put the phone away and watch it again. Oh, and I won’t give it away, but the ending’s great too. Crazy.
More to come as I continue watching the following seasons.