In the premiere episode of “American Horror Story” (9 p.m. Central Wednesdays on FX), psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) tells his patient, Tate (Evan Peters from “Invasion”) that he’s not crazy, he’s creative.
Indeed, there’s a fine line between crazy and creative, and “American Horror Story” producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk come dangerously close to stepping over it in the premiere episode. They lost me on their other current show, “Glee,” midway through the second season. The breaking point for me was when womanizer Puck is inexplicably smitten by an overweight girl, so much so that she controls his life. It was surprising, yes, but it was also so unbelievable that it wasn’t grounded in reality anymore.
A two-hour movie can get weird and still be engaging, but that’s because we know it’s going to end soon. A TV show needs to maintain its foundation of reality. “Glee” lost it eventually, and “American Horror Story” comes close to losing it in the first episode, although it starts promisingly enough. Ben and Vivien (Connie Britton) and their daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move into a big, old Los Angeles house in order to get a fresh start. Vivien is having trouble forgiving Ben for cheating on him with one of his students; Ben feels Vivien has been distant ever since delivering a stillborn baby.
Violet — no surprise — is a disillusioned teenager. When the real estate lady tells the Harmons that a murder-suicide in the basement is the reason for the great deal on this house, Violet immediately says “We’ll take it.”
The reason why horror is rarely done on TV is that movies have traditionally been allowed to go further with blood, violence, sexual situations, swearing and disturbing images. But that’s changing: FX is allowing all of that in “American Horror Story,” and Murphy and Falchuk take advantage of it. The pilot opens with a scary, intense sequence in 1978 of bratty twin boys tearing up the abandoned house despite warnings from a girl with Down’s Syndrome that if they go in there, they’ll die. And it ends with another nicely staged sequence: Violet and Tate (they meet because Ben sees his patients in his home office) trap a mean girl in the basement under the lure of drugs. As Violet flips the lights on and off, Tate makes scary faces and pseudo-attacks the girl.
However, Violet, the mean girl — and we the viewers — get glimpses of monsters that can’t possibly be Tate.
The relationship between Ben and Vivien is handled well, helped by the two excellent actors. McDermott ranges beyond his buttoned-up lawyer on “The Practice,” and Britton eschews associations with Tami Taylor by dropping the Texas accent and being more fragile. Ben and Vivien yell about the pain they’ve caused each other, then passionately kiss, making inroads toward healing. This — along with Violet’s abuse from bullies at school — is the real-world foundation “American Horror Story” needs.
Murphy and Falchuk undermine some of it, though, by stylizing what should be the quiet, everyday scenes. Ben goes jogging, and the camera does quick jump-cuts. Ben talks with a patient, and we get more little jump-cuts. “AHS” comes off as fidgety and weird during the times it should ease us into a comforting sense of normalcy.
Even more extreme, the Harmons’ neighbors, Constance (Jessica Lange) and her granddaughter — the girl with Down’s Syndrome, now an adult — are always inexplicably popping up in the house. The girl continues to tell everyone the house is going to kill them. And Constance has a personality that will put you ill at ease: She’s pleasant enough on the surface, but will occasionally say something frighteningly cruel, self-centered or just plain insane.
Meanwhile, the housekeeper appears elderly to Vivien and Violet and young and sexy to Ben; she even seduces Ben in his office, much to the onlooking Violet’s disgust and further disillusionment. And when the housekeeper catches Constance stealing jewelry from Vivien’s room, Constance tells her to back off, she doesn’t want to have to kill her again.
This is an attention-grabbing pilot episode for sure, but I worry that “American Horror Story” has overplayed its hand. Already, I feel like the Harmon family is outnumbered by monsters and weird human beings (even Tate, who could’ve been a sympathetic character, is glassy-eyed, unpredictable and underdeveloped). Monsters are scary when they are unknown; when you’re surrounded by them, well, it just becomes an ongoing battle like “The Walking Dead” (a fine show, but “AHS” shouldn’t go that direction).
“American Horror Story” earns a second episode from me, but I’m worried that it could run off the rails even faster than “Glee” did.
What were your thoughts on the pilot episode? Scary, or too weird?