Friday, March 16, 2012

American Horror Story - Disappointingly conventional television

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising FX's American Horror Story for is unique and bold take on serialised television based on its pilot episode. Since writing that piece, however, I have completed the remainder of the series and unfortunately must report that the success of the pilot is not mirrored in subsequent episodes.

American Horror Story isn't a complete disaster, but it does shoot itself in the foot quite spectacularly. The most glaring error made by the show is that, beginning with episode two, it starts to humanise its spirits and ghouls. A large number of the twelve episodes open with a flashback which depicts the way in which a previous occupant of the house came to their grizzly end. These flashbacks serve one of two purposes, they either add a new spook to terrorise the house's current occupants or explain the existence of an already present ghost. This makes sense in terms of the way serial dramas traditionally flesh out a large number of characters in order to fill many hours of screen time. However in this case the show fails to understand one of the key aspects of horror: we fear what we do not understand. The second we know that one of the ghosts is merely a poor former occupant who was tragically murdered, they lose their scare factor. They are not necessarily malevolent, just tragic characters stuck in limbo. After the pilot episode American Horror Story rapidly loses its brilliant sense of the surreal and steadily slips into the conventional.

The other way the show trips up is by introducing a "rule" about halfway through the series. The rule is, if a spirit is terrorising you, all you need to do is close your eyes and tell it to "go away" and it will disappear. Yep that's right, every single ounce of threat that was left in our increasingly humanised spirits is instantly destroyed by uttering two words. Sure it serves as one of the ways to rationalise why this family would continue living in such a (literal?) hell hole, but it comes at too costly a price. As an audience we simply do not feel as though our protagonists are in any form of danger. The tension is sucked from the show and suddenly it all becomes a bit dull.

The combined effect of these developments is that as the season progresses its ability to frighten diminishes. That's not to say it's all bad. There are some dramatic arcs that are compelling and work to hook you in, and there are even a few plot developments late in the series that are quite impressive. However, as a whole, it's just not enough. It is disappointing to see a show that premiered feeling genuinely bold and actually frightening devolve into such a scare-free affair.

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