×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

American Horror Story

"American Horror Story" is a stab (heh heh), from "Glee's" Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, at recycling jump-out-at-you conventions, which in its own way displays excesses similar to later seasons of Murphy's signature FX offering, "Nip/Tuck."

With:
With: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Dennis O'Hare, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Alexandra Breckenridge, Jamie Brewer.

Although there have been successful horror anthologies, episodic television has a frightening track record with the genre, largely because suspense is so difficult to sustain. Yet given its theatrical popularity and “The Walking Dead’s” success, it makes sense for somebody like FX to try. Enter “American Horror Story,” a stab (heh heh), from “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, at recycling jump-out-at-you conventions, which in its own way displays excesses similar to later seasons of Murphy’s signature FX offering, “Nip/Tuck.” The creative team’s fondness for the material appears unquestionable; whether they can exorcise what ails their show remains the real mystery.

Of course, for such a series to work (and past attempts, like CBS’ “American Gothic,” didn’t), there has to be a solid character foundation. In this case, it’s the Harmon family: Seeking to save a marriage fractured by a miscarriage and infidelity, psychologist Ben (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and bratty teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) head West, from Boston to L.A.

Why is this old house they’ve found so cheap? Because a murder-suicide occurred in the basement, the realtor explains. But hey, the place is half the price of other homes in the neighborhood, and for that money they’d have to live in the valley — which is really scary.

So in they move, only to be warned by their neighbor with Down’s syndrome (Jamie Brewer), “You are going to die in there” — which, in its vague echoes of lines from “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist II,” represents the first homage of many in Murphy and Falchuk’s script.

The main problem with a haunted-house series is making things scary without becoming so alarming the family flees screaming into the night in episode one. A second hour, however, rather than offering clarity or reassurance, only reinforces these doubts.

Creatively unleashed, the producers have concocted a sure-to-be-polarizing introduction that’s a truly weird, David Lynch-style experience — complete with bondage outfits, satanic images and the creepiest opening-title sequence ever.

Beyond the central family, everyone seems to have checked in from “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel — from the wild-eyed former actress next door (Jessica Lange, oddly channeling her work in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) to the spooky maid who, in the pilot’s niftiest device, appears one way (Frances Conroy) to Vivien and another (Alexandra Breckenridge) to Ben.

“AHS” derives inspiration from so many horror films there’s some fun in simply identifying those moments. But there’s also a surreal quality that feels wildly overdone — and periodically risks tumbling from inspiring fright into inducing giggles.

Britton is a strong yet vulnerable lead, and the couple’s marital woes feed into the tumult of their unsettling surroundings. By contrast, the daughter’s troubles fitting in at her new school and interaction with a disturbed boy feel like unpleasant dead ends.

For FX, there’s merit in trying to elevate the storytelling level in modern horror films from what has too often devolved into torture porn and splatter. And as a proliferation of reality TV programs demonstrate, people still love ghost stories.

“Horror Story’s” spirit-guides Murphy and Falchuk certainly silenced naysayers with “Glee.” Nevertheless, any more missteps and this wispy specter will descend the stairway to silliness — at which point, it’ll be hard to prevent the fat lady from singing.

American Horror Story

Wed. Oct. 5, 10 p.m.

Production: Credits: Filmed in Los Angeles by Ryan Murphy Prods. in association with Twentieth Century Fox Television. Executive producers, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Dante Di Loreto. 60 MIN.

Cast: With: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Dennis O'Hare, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Alexandra Breckenridge, Jamie Brewer.

More TV

  • THE BLACKLIST -- "Katarina Rostova (#3)"

    ‘The Blacklist’ Bosses on Delivering the 'Really Intense Family Drama That We've Been Promising for Seven Years'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Katarina Rostova,” the midseason seventh season finale of “The Blacklist.” Since “The Blacklist” began it has been building towards a confrontation between Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and her biological mother, Katarina Rostova (Laila Robbins). That promised confrontation was front-and-center in the seventh season [...]

  • REEF BREAK - "Pilot" - When

    'Reef Break' Canceled After One Season at ABC

    “Reef Break” will not be back for a second season at ABC. The series debuted back in June on the broadcaster and aired 13 episodes, with the finale airing on Sept. 13. It starred Poppy Montgomery as Cat Chambers, Ray Stevenson as Jake Elliot, Desmond Chiam as Wyatt Cole, Melissa Bonne as Ana Dumont and [...]

  • Jeff Shell

    Jeff Shell: Who Is the NBCUniversal Heir Apparent?

    Analytical, decisive, loyal, fair, empowering. Those are just a few of the choice words industry insiders who have worked with incoming NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell — set to succeed current chief exec Steve Burke, as Variety exclusively reported — use to describe the longtime media exec.  On Universal’s North Hollywood lot, many insiders who work [...]

  • Reese Witherspoon Kerry Washington Little Fires

    TV News Roundup: Hulu Reveals 'Little Fires Everywhere' Premiere Date

    In today’s TV news roundup, Hulu announces a premiere date for “Little Fires Everywhere” and Variety exclusively obtains a first look at this year’s Christmas episode of “The Simpsons.” DATES “Little Fires Everywhere” will debut March 18, Hulu announced. Produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, Kerry Washington’s Simpson Street, and ABC Signature Studios, the show [...]

  • Watchmen Regina King Tim Blake Nelson

    How 'Watchmen' Pulled Off One of the Best TV Seasons of the Decade

    The first time Damon Lindelof realized that “Watchmen” — his adaptation/remix/continuation of the groundbreaking 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — might actually be a hit was after the pilot debuted at New York Comic Con in October. In the following panel, the 46-year-old writer-producer could tell the audience was connecting with [...]

  • 9-1-1: Angela Bassett in the “Christmas

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of Dec. 2: 'The Good Doctor,' '9-1-1' Top Gainers

    “The Good Doctor” on ABC and “9-1-1” on Fox were the two biggest gainers in the Live+3 TV ratings for the week of Dec. 2. The pair benefited from the absence of NBC’s “This Is Us,” which to date has shown the largest gains across all scripted shows after three days of delayed viewing. “Good [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content