What can definitively be said about this show is that it has atmosphere. This show knows exactly what it wants to be, and save for a few slight mis-steps (mainly overuse of jump-cuts; I still don’t forgive Jean-Luc Godard for that) it knows how to get it. It is easy to imagine people getting turned off by the show’s pure repulsiveness– it’s saturated in fleeting images of deformed, dismembered, ghoulish people– but I enjoyed it despite the fact that horror is my least favorite genre, which I think is a testament to the show’s engaging story and style.
The first things that makes American Horror Story unique is that the house that the Harmon family moves into is not exactly “haunted” as it is some kind of demented creature– similar to The Shining, the house seems to drive its inhabitants insane with voices and visions until they’re driven to torching their family in the middle of the night. This leads to an almost Lost-like set of sequences where it’s unclear exactly what is real and what isn’t, and things happen that have no immediate explanation; but there seems to be a promise that all the nonsense will eventually form a coherent whole. The title sequence, for example, features several shots of creepy babies that are either dolls or dead, which at first seems like a cheap ploy taking advantage of our innate revulsion to such things; but we later learn that the character of Vivien had a miscarriage six months before moving into the house, making the dead-baby imagery suddenly incredibly relevant. The narrative is also fairly efficient; every scene is geared in some way towards developing mystery and creepiness, and so while the show is frequently absurd and confusing it is never boring. Sometimes the show can even get to be too much, throwing more curveballs at your head after you’re still reeling from the last one, but mostly that just makes me want to give the episode a second viewing.
A show as ambitious and high-strung as this could easily fly apart from its own frenetic energy, but the show is held together by a surprisingly tight emotional core. The married couple at the center of the show, Vivien and Ben, have a truckload of issues between them, and the ways that they work out their anger and disappointment bring some of the show’s truest moments. The daughter, Violet, has a lot of typical teen angst, but an interesting character psychology seems to lurk under the surface there. And Tate, one of the father’s psychiatric patients, starts off as a typical disillusioned and depressed teen but develops into something more complex. Even more intriguing is the themes that the show seems to be setting up– uniting all the random bogeymen and disturbing Goya-esque images of the show seems to be consistent themes about inappropriate desires, particularly wanting to have sex with those you shouldn’t and wanting to hurt people. So while the show is inarguably full of insanity and (presently) inexplicable bursts of horror, they all seem to be operating towards a certain purpose. What, exactly, that purpose is, I am eager to find out.
Understatement would ultimately not seem to be the show’s strong-suit, overtly shocking and flashy as it is, but one of the opening scenes of the show reveals a surprising understanding of subtlety. Vivien, the mother of the family, enters her (non-haunted home) and hears screaming from upstairs; she grabs a knife and heads up to the bedroom and pauses shocked in the doorway. We never see what she sees in the room; we only watch her and hear her husband’s aggrieved voice begging for forgiveness. Of all the scenes from the show this might be the one that impressed me the most, and if the show understands that sometimes not seeing is more powerful than seeing, we could be in for a much more affecting show than most are anticipating.