'American Horror Story', episode 2: highlights from the screening, Q&A with co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Ok, so a short bit of history. A couple of months ago I attended a screening of the show's two-hour-long pilot episode, which I enjoyed despite its essential flaws. I was then invited back to view episode two and write up my "impressions" of it afterward.
To set it up properly, the series centers on a family that's just moved to an old, creepy Victorian home in Los Angeles from the East Coast. Father Ben Harmon (who works as a psychiatrist) is played by Dylan McDermott, mother Vivien is played by Connie Britton, and teenage daughter Violet is played by Taissa Farmiga (Vera's sister). The family has relocated for a fresh start after Vivien caught Ben cheating several months previously; the couple is under the impression that the move will somehow save their marriage. Unfortunately, the house is cursed with a deadly legacy of murder, madness and mayhem, and it's not planning on breaking the pattern anytime soon.
The second episode begins, as did the pilot, with a flashback to a dark incident from the house's past. It's the 1960s; several young women are rooming there. Three of them step out to go out to a Doors concert, leaving two of their roommates behind. That's when a strange man appears on their doorstep...and something really, really bad happens.
In the pilot - a little more setup here - Ben's infidelity was briefly dramatized, and then the family was shown moving into their new home. Other (overwhelmingly quirky) characters were then introduced, including a strange next-door neighbor named Constance (Jessica Lange) and her Down syndrome-afflicted daughter (Jamie Brewer). Also, a spooky maid played by Frances Conroy (and alternately the much-younger Alexandra Breckenridge, for reasons I won't spoil) shows up seemingly out of nowhere and essentially forces her way into a job working for them. And then there's Tate (Evan Peters), Ben's young psychiatric patient who becomes fixated on Violet.
Deviating from the general consensus, I actually enjoyed the pilot. It wasn't great television, per se, but a lot of "guilty pleasure" fun nonetheless. A lot happens in the episode, to be sure - perhaps a bit too much (an oft-stated criticism I basically agree with) - but it transfixed me in the way I'm transfixed by the sight of a horrific multiple-car wreck on the 405 freeway. Murphy has never been known for his subtlety as either a storyteller or a visual stylist (he also directed the pilot) but he damn well knows how to pull an audience in. Whether he can sustain that over an ongoing series is the real question.
The second episode doesn't resolve that uncertainty, though I didn't really expect it to. That said, while I found it a tad less-intriguing than the pilot, I must admit that it still managed to sustain my interest - if only to see where Murphy and Falchuk can possibly take the show from here.
This time around - probably due to the fact that the episode is 42 minutes vs. the pilot's 90 - the plot was less all-over-the-place, devoting much of its energy to a brutal home invasion scenario with shades of Bryan Bertino's 2008 film "The Strangers", right down to the creepy Halloween masks.
And yet the episode's highlights lie in its secondary characters - particularly Lange, who can't help but steal every second she's on-screen. The veteran actress has a couple of terrific scenes here, one of which sees her preparing to bed a beefcake young model/actor less than half her age whilst simultaneously attempting to keep her insistent adult daughter from interfering (let's just say the show veers into some serious "Carrie" territory around this point).
Sure, the episode has its problems. Chief among them is that, as played by McDermott, Ben comes across as a pitiable sad sack and not much else. Over the first two episodes the actor is given several emotional scenes to play - all revolving around Ben's guilt for the hurt that he's caused - but I've already grown tired of seeing his puppy-dog eyes well up with tears seemingly every single time he's on screen.
I think this is partly the fault of McDermott, who doesn't seem to possess the tools as a thespian to bring an essential likability to Ben, and partly the fault of the writers. While usually Hollywood offerings are plagued by poorly-written female characters, the male lead here is actually the weakest component of the show. Murphy admitted during the Q&A that he enjoys writing the women most of all, and it unfortunately shows in the finished product.
And yet there's a genuine inspiration in the episode's best scenes that still make me want to keep watching. For all of its flaws (i.e. Murphy and Falchuk's tendency to cop from their influences without justifying their place in the story - Bernard Hermann and "The Strangers" being a couple from this episode that feel more like empty pastiche than genuinely inspired nods), you can still sense the passion of the show's creators even when their choices aren't really working.
You can check back with us for a formal review once the episode actually airs (I'm only allowed to offer my most general thoughts on the episode at this time), but below you can find a few of the best quotes from tonight's Murphy-dominated Q&A:
Murphy on America's morbid obsessions: "I think this show is a commentary on American society right now. There are still huge amounts of tour buses that go by the Sharon Tate house. There are clubs devoted to famous murder recreations. And I think every town has the murder house. When I was growing up we certainly did. That's another thing that we talk about, about people's obsessions with crime and murder and stuff like that...to circumvent your own anxiety in very anxious times."
Murphy on how the show will NOT be like "Lost" (my reference, not his): "The thing that was important to us when we were doing the first season, like a lot of the things that were established in the pilot and the second episode we felt a real obligation to viewers to answer those within the run of the first season. Because I think that's frustrating for viewers. And I've certainly had that experience where you're waiting, waiting, waiting and then you don't [get] the big reveal that [you've] been waiting for. ...I would say every episode, pretty much for the run of the show, has a huge reveal. ...Because I think that's the fun of...you know, sort of like 'what's in the box?'"
Murphy on why the Harmons continue to stick around even after all the bat-shit insanity starts happening: "There's a lot of reasons that I don't really want to say because I don't want to blow it for people, but it's more than just 'We can't economically sell the house.' The house has certain powers, let's say, that make leaving both physically and psychologically undesirable. For instance, if you're pregnant and you live in a place and every time you leave it you have terribly violent morning sickness [hint hint?], chances are you probably wouldn't want to leave too much."
Murphy on he and Falchuk's influences in crafting the series: "I think one of the things that the show also does is it pays homage more to classic horror films. Brad's favorite movie is 'Jaws', my favorite movie is 'Network', followed closely by 'Don't Look Now', so that was our childhood...My favorite experience with my grandparents was watching 'Dark Shadows'...it was a very seminal feeling for me peeking out behind the chair and loving the feeling of being scared. So I'm sure the 'Dark Shadows' [homage] will [be] in the show."
Murphy on the metaphorical significance of the family moving from the East to the West Coast: ."I would say the core thing that we have always been interested in that we were talking about is this idea that America was always about 'Go West! Go West!' In other words, claim new, uncharted territory. New to someplace that is fresh and you can start over unencumbered by other memories and other people. But I think the great thing about the country is there's no more room, for the most part. And no matter where you go, no matter where you live, you will be dealing with somebody who was there before you...and their memories, and their traumas, and their lives, and that's something that's a great dramatic structure of the series, particularly the first season."
Murphy on casting and working with stage and screen legend Jessica Lange: "When we had this part, it was very small. I think it was just the first scene, the pilot. And Brad and I were like, 'we should get Jessica for this.' And she's never done TV. She has a very beautiful life in Minnesota, swimming in the lakes. So I just called her up and I really would not take no for an answer...and we wrote all those other scenes [for her]....But she's a joy to work with, and I love, as does Brad, writing that character. Because one of my great theatrical experiences ever was to see Jessica Lange do 'Streetcar [Named Desire]' in New York. I saw it twice, I was obsessed with it, I was obsessed with her."
Murphy on Jessica Lange, Part 2: "I just love seeing her in this episode get it on with a 24-year-old dude, I think that's amazing. And she loved it as well. Jessica Lange is not only one of our great actresses, she's still amazingly hot. She's beautiful. The crew guys check her out when she's walking back to her trailer. So I like, as does Brad, writing women like that who are vital and sexy. And I think that's sort of the woman next door you've never seen before. I like that."
Murphy on why "AHS" is a perfect show to put on in the fall: "John [Landgraf] and everybody at FX...[thought] this is a cool show to put on in the fall. What I love about it is...last year the greatest TV viewing experience of my life was I cleared my deck on Halloween, I went out to dinner and I came home and watched 'The Walking Dead'. And I had the best time. I love that feeling of the fall, on October 1st, watching scary movies, and I think most people have that feeling. It's so perfect for that time...we're doing a two-part Halloween episode. We really rushed it and worked on it to make that window, but I'm really glad that we did."
Murphy on the flashback we can expect at the beginning of the third episode: "The next episode I really love because Lily Grabe stars as the woman the house was built for. So you see that story, the origins of why did this house become cursed? Which is sort of fun and cool. It's a great 1924...flashback...But we do do that. Every episode starts with some big piece of historical knowledge about the house."
Murphy on creating the house as a character: "The house was always gonna be a character, and I always wanted it, cause I directed the pilot, to be like house porn. ...So I wanted that to be sort of part of the idea of this house that it was so great that you could not say no even if somebody was murdered there. And we had in the writing, we had described as it was, we had all the Tiffany fixtures as it was written and then that was the first house I [saw]. But I spent a lot of time with the location people telling them what it had to have. So they spent a couple months searching for it. And you know, the house is really cool, and great, and awesome, and haunted in a weird way...for Jessica Lange and Connie Britton's first scene a huge light fell like two feet from their heads. It's just like a spooky place...there's a nunnery across the street, which I love. And it's in a part of town that was at one point neglected, but in the '20s it was the great place in L.A. to buy. So I like the whole resurrection in that. People may die, but for the most part, houses don't."
Murphy on whether we'll see cast members from "Glee" or "Nip/Tuck" popping up in the show at any point: "No. I mean...I think it's really cool to sort of create a world for the most part that's very identifiable...I don't know, I think that would take you out of it."
Murphy on how much the pilot has changed since its initial screening for critics: "I don't know, I think in a show like this, I think you want to feel scared, thrilled, on the edge of your seat. I think that dictates some of it. So if you look at the pilot...when we showed it before, it was fresh out of the oven. And there was some things, that I made a decision with John [Landgraf] and Dana [Walden]...it is trimmed back a little bit. There is a sequence in particular in the pilot that has been removed, just because I thought, as did they, ok, it's one thing too many and we can do that in episode seven. So we have been careful...and I really love the re-calibration because I think it breathes a little bit more. ...Also in the pilot we made some musical choices to pull out a good number of stings and cues, because I ultimately felt it was more...eerie."
Murphy on how the show is timely: "I think historically...we've had this experience sort of ever since the recession has hit. But in times of economic anxieties, usually...two genres sort of flourish, and they are horror and musicals. I think people want to be scared or completely forget about their troubles. So that's an interesting thing to tap into. ...I was interested in that, as was Brad, like 'What do you do if you move into this house and you find out that the realtor has lied to you, that all of this stuff has happened there, and there's a recession, and you can't sell it. What do you do? You are stuck. It's an interesting thing that I've never seen dealt with. We deal with that really heavily in the next couple episodes."
As for Mr. Falchuk...we'll just assume he concurs with all of the above.
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