American Horror Story started its first season last night on Four (9.30pm) with a first episode that delivered on the promotional hype, banging out scares over the course of the hour. Yet despite the entertaining (albeit derivative) debut, I find myself wondering if a straight-up horror show can succeed long term, and whether I'll even be watching AHS in a month or two.
(Warning: Spoilers from last night's American Horror Story premiere follow.)
Making a horror show - a straight-up horror show, something that looks like the television equivalent of The Exorcist or The Shining - might seem simple enough ("get a big house, 200 gallons of fake blood and some creepy kids, and we'll figure the rest out later"), but the more I think about it, the more difficult it seems it would be.
The reason might be that horror movies seem so much simpler than even the most basic television shows. An entertaining horror film builds in intensity to a dramatic conclusion. A great television season needs to do the same, with each episode playing into an overall narrative that builds to a strong conclusion, while also satisfying viewers on a weekly, standalone basis.
For that reason, I think of Breaking Bad's fourth season (in progress on Four, Thursday nights) as a master class in screenwriting - and also for that reason, I have to hold off judgment on American Horror Story until later in the season. Maybe until the end of the season.
See, last night's premiere got off to a good start. Show creators Ryan Murphy (of Glee fame) and Brad Falchuk have put some interesting pieces in place and cast some great actors (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton are good choices for the lead roles, and Jessica Lange, Francis Conroy and Denis O'Hare are welcome on any show, any time), while also using familiar iconography from the horror genre: jars full of body parts, burnt and scarred skin, creaky floorboards, and all the rest.
But there are two problems. First, though I found it entertaining, it all seems a little derivative. Like, I feel as though I spent half the show thinking about where I had seen that character type, or where I had heard that little violin crescendo. Much of the show just reminded me of things I'd seen before. How many episodes it will take for that to get reeeeeally boring remains to be seen.
The other problem is that it's hard to know where the story is heading after just one episode. I know we've talked before about the three episode rule (giving a show a few weeks before deciding whether to stick with it or not), but American Horror Story might need longer to find its feet and tie everything together.
A lot will depend on how the writers approach their story. I mean, what if each new instalment is its own little encapsulated story? The idea that so much terror could happen to the same family, enough terror to fill an entire season of television, could test even the most patient viewer.
Even worse, what if the things we saw last night are all there is to AHS? Perhaps there is no more to the story than the mystery around the demise of all the former homeowners, the double-aged maid, Britton's pregnancy - which will probably go wrong,in accordance with horror movie production law ... I just don't think there's enough there to sustain it.
The only way to know is to wait until much later in the season; to wait and see how the story unravels and what new pieces are introduced and resolved in the coming weeks. The feeling I got from the debut was that a few episodes of AHS probably won't be enough to judge the entire show.
Did you watch American Horror Story last night? What did you think?
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