AMERICAN HORROR STORY 1×03 – "Murder House"

And here I was concerned that American Horror Story might get better, or find some restraint, and lose its hilarious charm. Silly me. As it turns out, I don't think we need to worry about this show getting better or more restrained any time soon.

I am absolutely loving how terrible this show is—I probably laugh more loudly and more often at American Horror Story than at any of the so-called "comedies" I watch—but I confess I haven't the slightest idea how to write about it. Usually when I review shows I'm summarizing the story, and/or discussing the character development, and/or analyzing the theme: this show, as near as I can tell, has none of those things. A lot of things happen in "Murder House"—it's not like the show lacks for incidence—but none of the things that happen relate to each other either logically or thematically. It's like the writer of each episode (Jennifer Salt, in this case) is handed a grab-bag of what-the-fuck moments (WTFsTM) and told to build a script around them:

Ryan Murphy: Okay, Jennifer, reach into the bag and pull out some WTFs for your episode. [Shakes the bag.]
Salt:
You know, actually, I have some ideas of my own I've been working on…
Murphy:
[Menacingly] REACH…INTO…THE…BAG…JENNIFER.
Salt: Um…OK. [Pulls out a WTF, and reads it.] It says, "Pregnant girlfriend is clubbed to death with shovel." All right, I guess I can work with that.
Murphy: Excellent! Next?
Salt: Hmm. "Gratuitous and Sleazy Reenactment of The Big Gay Murder of '60s Film Star Sal Mineo."
Murphy: Oh, that's a good one! It's all coming together now.
Salt: Look, I'm not trying to be difficult, but I don't understand how that's supposed to fit in. Sal Mineo has nothing do with anything in this episode.
Murphy: That's the beauty of working on this show: it doesn't matter!
Salt: Maybe I should call my agent…
Murphy: JUST REACH INTO THE BAG AGAIN, JENNIFER.
Salt: [Sighing] OK, this one says, "Crazy Doctor Who Sews Bat Wings on Pig Carcasses."
Murphy: Damn, you're getting all the best stuff to work with, you lucky girl. I smell an EMMY!

I mean, seriously, let's look at what happens this week:

First up, we get a little insight—if you can call it that—into the somewhat contentious relationship between Constance (Jessica Lange) and Moira-the-Housekeeper (Alex Breckenridge/Frances Conroy). In 1983, it seems young Moira (Breckenridge) had a brief affair with Constance's husband, who then tried to rape Moira in his tighty-whities. (The husband was wearing the tighty-whities, that is, not Moira. Normally, that would be clear from context, but with this show I think I better be careful about my dangling modifiers.) Constance caught them in the act, and shot them both dead, putting a bullet cleanly through Moira's right eye.

What happened to the husband after this we don't yet know—dead though he is, I assume he'll turn up again—but Moira's body was apparently buried in the backyard, while her soul (now the understandably glassy-eyed Conroy) has been condemned to eternally scrub the floors of the infamous house. (Considering that at least three people a week get murdered or assaulted in this house, it seems like an excessively Sisyphean punishment for getting involuntarily dry-humped. Hell, this poor woman has to scrub up more bloodstains than the Gimp on Deadwood.)

So Moira (who is dead) and Constance (who is not?) are locked in this eternal, hateful struggle for…something. Or not. It's really not clear. Is one of them good? Is one of them evil? Moira clearly seems to be the sympathetic party—or would, if she didn't spend all of her time flashing her ass at Ben (Dylan McDermott) and trying to get him to sleep with her. ("I just clean up the stains," she says to him, in her sultriest housekeeper voice. "Wanna make another one?" Umm, no, thank you. Just carry on with your vacuuming, since you've just basically guaranteed that I will never have another erection.)

And can we have a moment of pity for poor Frances Conroy, who takes the brunt of the mean-spirited "humor" inherent in the role she shares with Alex Breckenridge? We're supposed to find it hysterical that Ben thinks he's struggling to resist the charms of young Moira, while he's really getting all randy for old, untouchable Moira. (I mean, Conroy is no spring chicken, but she's not exactly the Cryptkeeper either: she's only eight years older than McDermott, but this show plays her sexuality for either humor or horror.)

Meanwhile, Ben has blacked out during a session with his new patient (Adina Porter), a woman who is suffering from being chronically boring. (Seriously: that's her problem. Her husband is divorcing her—after 22 years—for being boring.) It's amazing her husband lasted 22 years, since Ben lasts about 9 minutes with her before he sinks into a stuporous fugue state, waking up in the backyard with blood on his hands and a shovel in his hands. Moira is cleaning up a mysterious new bloodstain outside his office, and soon a detective arrives with the news that the Boring Woman is missing.

So we are supposed to believe that Ben blacked out and killed her…Except he didn't, of course. It turns out that the woman went off and tried to kill herself (mostly because Ben is a shitty shrink), and Moira drugged Ben with laudanum and placed him in the backyard. (I don't know where the blood came from, and really—with this show—I don't want to know.)

Why Moira did this is not entirely clear: I think she did it because she was hoping Ben would think he killed the woman and buried her in the backyard; he was then supposed to dig up the yard to find her, and in the process find the secret grave where Moira's bones were buried, somehow freeing Moira from her Curse of Eternal Housecleaning. (Except that this makes no sense without the Boring Woman's disappearance, which Moira couldn't have known about at the time she drugged Ben. Unless somehow she arranged that too. And why would Ben—thinking he'd killed someone and hidden the body—then dig her up?)

(Sigh. Trying to make sense of this show makes me feel stupid. It wasn't until my third viewing of this episode that I realized there was any purpose at all to Moira's evil plan, and that's at least three times more than anyone should watch an episode of American Horror Story. To be charitable, let's just agree that one of us is stupid—me or the show—and leave it at that.)

Most shows would think this bizarre subplot would be sufficient to keep Ben occupied for a single episode, but most shows are not American Horror Story. Ben must also deal with the arrival of Haydn (Kate Mara), the young woman he "pile-drove" into pregnancy out of grief over his wife's miscarriage. When last we saw Haydn she was a calm, self-aware young woman who had reasonably decided not to carry the baby to term: Episode Two literally left her going into the doctor's office to get an abortion, saying "I'm fine, really, it's the right thing to do."

Now—either because the plot requires it or because Salt didn't read Episode Two's script—Haydn is a clingy psychopath who would almost certainly be capable of boiling a pet rabbit on the Harmon Family's stove. She's not only decided to keep the baby, but she announces that she's moving to L.A. and wants Ben to tell his wife, pay for everything, and be a father to their child. "I'm not a whore," Haydn shrieks. "I matter. I MATTER!" Mara is actually quite good with the terrible material she's given, and I hope we see her again—which is certainly possible, even given the fact that she is clubbed to death by Larry (Denis O'Hare), who just happened to be passing by and feeling clubby.

(As no one else has seen Larry, my assumption is that Larry only exists in Ben's mind, and that Ben really killed Haydn. This would not really make sense—why then is Larry trying to borrow $1,000 from Ben?—but it would certainly make more sense than any of the other options.) Larry digs a new grave for Haydn, dumping her atop the old bones of Moira, and Ben quickly erects a Murder Gazebo over the spot, ensuring that both Moiras (and Haydn?) are doomed to spend eternity haunting the halls of Murder House.

Had enough yet? Oh no you haven't, because we've only glimpsed the tip of the Crazy-Ass-Iceberg that is every single episode of American Horror Story. While Ben is dealing with terminally boring patients, psychotic ex-lovers, and manipulatively dualistic housekeepers, Vivien (Connie Britton) has been learning a little about the house they are now apparently stuck with.

For they are indeed stuck. Solving the "Eddie Murphy Problem" of why this family would stay in this house, this episode provides not one, not two, but three ridiculous explanations: 1) All of their money is now tied up in this house that no one else is stupid enough to buy; 2) Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is threatening to run away from home if they move again; and 3) Vivien's doctor, preposterously, suggests that Vivien could have a "spontaneous abortion" from the stress of moving. (I guess the stress of home invasions, Rubberman rapists, and basement-dwelling-batboys is considered less of a risk.)

So, recognizing that she should perhaps learn a little more about this money-and-soul pit with which they're stuck, Vivien goes on a tour of famous murder sites (including the aforementioned, and utterly pointless, reenactment of Sal Mineo's death). The original occupants of the house, Vivien learns, back in 1922, were Dr. Charles Montgomery (a psychotic doctor who liked to make mix-and-match Garanimals out of actual animals) and his wife, Nora (a nasty, castrating harridan, like all women on this show). To help out with their financial difficulties, Nora apparently persuaded Charles to operate an abortion clinic out of their basement, rescuing Hollywood ingenues from the perils of motherhood for $60 a pop. "An estimated two dozen girls went under Dr. Montgomery's knife, thanks to his wife Nora," the tour guide tells us. "But the souls of the little ones must have weighed heavily upon them, as their reign of terror climaxed in a shocking finale in 1926."

Vivien has to cut her tour short due to a bit of spot bleeding that makes her think she's having a miscarriage, and so she misses the rest of this story, along with what was probably a four-hour lecture on the 327 other murders that have seriously lowered her property values. Fortunately, she'll have the chance to catch up with the Montgomerys, since Nora (Lily Rabe) turns up again in 2011, looking no worse for wear except for a gaping wound in the back of her skull. (Because what this show needed was another crazy-ass ghost lady making things interesting.)

Every good television series leaves you with questions. Every bad television series does too, except the questions are more likely to be along the lines of What the fuck? What the fuck is any of this supposed to mean? There's some painfully thin thematic line connecting all these random elements together: the exploited maid, the scorned lover, the deceived wives, the young abortion-seeking women, et cetera, et cetera—but neither I nor the show seem to have the slightest idea how they all tie together in any meaningful way.

(It will take a few more episodes before I would even hazard a guess, but—with all of this woman-centered horror—and Vivien's line in the pilot that her body is "not a house"—what begins to truly horrify me is the suspicion that Falchuk and Murphy believe they are making a feminist horror show, when in fact they are making one of the more blatantly misogynistic programs ever produced for mass consumption. If it weren't so clumsily and randomly executed, I'm pretty sure this would all be really offensive.)

But here's the thing: I can't look away. Pound for pound, American Horror Story packs more laughably absurd, what-the-fuck moments into a single hour than most shows do in their entire runs. If you put a group of horny 12-year old boys in a room, kept them awake for three straight weeks on pixie sticks, Mountain Dew, and methamphetamines, showed them every horror movie ever made, and then asked them to free-associate a TV show, they still wouldn't come up with the turgid, tortured mess that is American Horror Story.

This is really once-in-a-lifetime badness, and I really hope they're just getting warmed up.

 

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