Thursday, May 24, 2012

American Horror Story from a cultural vacuum

There’s nothing like watching a TV show in a vacuum, by which I mean not having read a single review, critical analysis or piece of press before digging into a program so you’re free to form your own opinions. I suspect that there would be a lot less groupthink (deemed by myself to be measured by critical agreement) on shows if critics didn’t spend good chunks of their time philosophizing together about what makes shows like Community or Parks and Recreation (I like one of those two) so great.

Catching up on the series several months after the fact, I had little choice but to watch American Horror Story in a vacuum in order to avoid spoilers. It was precisely because of that solitude that the experience was so exhilarating. I couldn’t afford the luxury of complaining about maladjusted plot twists or nonsensical plots because I was too distracted trying to piece together what I was seeing. Other critics, in the meantime, enjoyed a think-tank effect: Comments on the A.V. Club message boards, reading of press material, or talking about the show on the twittersphere allow for the combined efforts of hundreds of people to decipher together clues. The experience of deciphering what you’re seeing becomes so much easier that you don’t get the full experience.

The end result is this jaded review from the highly-respected (and not necessarily wrong) critic James Poniewozik of Time Magazine. Poniewozik is a self-admitted heavy twitter user as well:

“A silly assault of whatever crazy ideas Murphy and Falchuk wanted to throw in there (Ghosts in gimp suits! Naked Dylan McDermott! Shape-changing maids!) mixed in with some performances that at least got the joke (Jessica Lange, mostly) and others that unfortunately didn't (Connie Britton), all of it so fast and relentless and loud that little of it had the intended impact on me.”

I don’t disagree with Poniewozik’s “fast and relentless” assessment. I found the experience of watching the show’s first couple episodes jarring, but it was a disorientation that grabbed my attention. Sticking with the show paid off primarily because of the rather artful way in which the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s not unusual for a show these days to follow in the footsteps of "Lost" and arc its episodes in complex ways, but for a Ryan Murphy show, I found a surprising amount of internal consistency in all the plot threads. Combined with Murphy’s strengths (yes, he has them, or why else would we be watching Glee?), particularly his ability to juggle a large number of eye-popping flashy characters within a 42-minute frame, I’d call this show novel in a unique way. Equally good is that the show’s episodes work very well as stand-alone episodes. I particularly was fascinated by all the faux mythology that the 2nd episode, “Home Invasion”, was built around. In a vaccum, I’m restricting myself from looking up if it was based on anything historical, but that’s certainly more than enough to spark curiosity.

I will, however, concede to the haters that Ben and Vivian don’t make an engaging center for the story and that the show deserved better leads for its inaugural season. In my admittedly limited experience with Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott, neither has ever worked for me. Britton is most closely linked in TV land with Friday Night Lights which I have not seen. I remember her more for her role in the erosion of the character of Mike Flaherty by playing the transformation of Nikki from pining subordinate to demanding girlfriend so poorly.

I also strongly question why some of the characters are so nonchalantly evil. Echoing the growing sentiment that Murphy (and his two co- execs) didn’t always have a handle on how dislikeable characters like Kurt or Mr. Schu could be on Glee, I found Tate to be a more disturbing, dark, and unpleasant personality and I get the sense that he was written more sympathetically. Ghost or not, Tate is the equivalent of a serial killer and has done some awful things: Deflowering Ben’s daughter, tormenting Ben, sleeping with Ben’s wife under false pretenses, and killing the gay couple. He should have inspired Sylar-like levels of in-universe dread and had his own Vaderish evil theme by episode six. Instead, the daughter hangs around him and the dad just has a casual attitude of “I can’t treat you anymore here, but maybe around the corner in the coffee shop.”

Similarly, the character of Larry Harvey (Dennis O’Hare) added to the mix as a sometimes useful juxtaposition with the rest of the gang who all sport faces that aren’t disgusting. Of all the puzzle pieces that came together, Harvey’s story never had me invested to figure out the truth to his story and, somehow, he didn’t feel satisfying. Logistically, I also question why he would nonchalantly kill Hayden.

On the whole, though, I think story dominated over any weak links in the characters, and except for the leads, no one was unengaging.

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