The controlled madness of "American Horror Story"

Between Jessica Lange's southern Gothic hamminess and the ever-growing roster of ghosts, this is one loopy show

Published December 8, 2011 1:00PM (EST)

Dylan McDermott wrestles with "The Rubber Man" on "American Horror Story"
Dylan McDermott wrestles with "The Rubber Man" on "American Horror Story"

The following article contains spoilers for "American Horror Story" season one, episode 10, "Smoldering Children." Read at your own risk.

"Ladies and gentlemen ... the ham."

This may be the line that Jessica Lange was born to say, in the role she was born to play, on a TV show perfectly suited to her fluttery intensity. Her character Constance delivered it over a tight shot of a ham festooned with moist pineapple slices being thrust into the camera's lens, as if the show were being broadcast in 3-D. It was a perfect kick-off to "Smoldering Children," the 10th episode of the first season of "American Horror Story."

Written by "X-Files" veteran James Wong and directed by Michael Lehmann ("Heathers"), the hour greatly escalated the madness on this already demented show. Created by "Glee" executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the series seems to be inventing a new kind of horror -- a 21st-century, short-attention-span-theater version, with no lulls. The traditional buildup to the big scare? Booooo-ring. Perhaps operating under the assumption -- not unwarranted -- that most viewers are watching the program on DVR or illegal download and will just fast-forward to the "good parts" anyhow, they've decided to save us all the bother. Every few seconds there's a fabulously bitchy one-liner, a grim bit of exposition or a surprisingly deft transition between the two, or a beating or stabbing or disembowelment or horrendous searing of flesh, or a faintly S&M-dungeon-flavored sex scene, or a revelation that a character you thought was alive was actually dead all along, or that the heroine has been impregnated by both her husband and by a black-rubber-suited spectral hunk and is carrying both of their children.

What happened tonight? Let's review -- with the caveat that when you describe the actual events on this show, they sound like the plot of a hypothetical horror novel being plotted out by a couple of precocious 13-year-olds.

Ben Harmon visited his wife Vivien at the asylum where he'd had her committed and shamefacedly said that he should have believed her when she said she was raped, because of the aforementioned dual pregnancy and the fact that the only other man Ben suspected Vivien of having sex with -- the handsome black home security guy played by Morris Chestnutt -- is sterile. The non-Ben twin is courtesy of Tate Langdon, the dead school shooter who's in love with the Harmons' troubled daughter Violet. A team of detectives headed by Charles S. Dutton (who always seems to be investigating something) called on Lange's character (and Tate's mother) Constance, whose boy-toy lover, Travis, was recently found vivisected in a weed-strewn lot in the manner of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder. Viewers who saw last week's episode knew that the latter atrocity was no mere copycat crime. In the show's mythology, the Dahlia --  played by "American Beauty" co-star Mena Suvari -- was an aspiring actress who died of an excess of anesthesia while being sleep-raped by her dentist (Joshua Malina, no doubt missing Aaron Sorkin terribly); the vivisection was committed by the ghost of a murdered surgeon who was living in the dentist's house at the time. The surgeon vivisected Travis in the Dahlia style to help out Hayden, the vengeful former lover of Ben Harmon, who killed Travis after having ghost-sex with him and learning that he was going to marry Constance anyway. Larry Harvey, Constance's long-ago gentleman friend and Ben's disfigured stalker, killed Hayden very early in the season, and Ben buried her body in the yard and built a gazebo on top of it. Pretty much everyone who ever lived in, or even visited this house is a murderer or murder victim. Sex! Rape! Murder! Ghost rape! Ghost sex! Ghost murder! That's what the writing staff chants before every meeting, I bet. I also think the black rubber suit belongs to Ryan Murphy and that he wears it while watching rough cuts.

Anyway, the two Big Reveals in the episode were (1) Violet is actually dead and has been for quite some time, having bought it during an earlier suicide attempt, and (2) Larry falsely confessed to killing Travis out of unrequited love for Constance.  How unrequited? Permanently, I'd say. That last scene between the two of them was truly pathetic -- the hapless romantic literally reaching out to the object of his desire, placing his hand on the glass hoping for some kind of reciprocal gesture, and Constance reaching her hand out, then drawing it back and walking away. The tearful scene in which Tate tried to convince Violet to join him in death -- even though she's already there! Psych! -- was simultaneously dumb and powerful in the way that dreams often are.  Violet's assent turned out to be a ruse that allowed her to escape the attic and discover that her father had been beaten unconscious by Tate, but in the moment it made a certain thoroughly irrational, adolescent sense. Or a dream sense.

The whole series captures this emotionally upside-down feeling, even in scenes so weakly conceived that they might have been extracted from the writers' posteriors with huge tongs. "American Horror Story" has that eerie twilight quality that afflicts the consciousness when you're half asleep or awake. You aren't quite sure if the dream you're having is really happening; you may wonder if the logical inconsistencies aren't just evidence that you don't, in fact, know everything, that there are some important workaday rules that nobody explained to you, like "Some of the people in your life that you think are alive have actually been dead for years," or, "If a woman has sex with a male ghost, she can get pregnant, and give birth to the world-ending abomination that supposedly every ascendant Pope is warned about." This is the kind of series in which the murdered Travis' ghost can ask Larry if his death made the news, then seem half-delighted that Constance took his death "pretty hard," then slightly hurt that she hasn't been over to see him yet, then introduce Larry to the disfigured ghosts of his wife and two daughters, who died when Larry's wife learned of their affair back in 1994 and set them all ablaze. The button on the end of this dazzling scene -- which shifts from smart-ass humor to soapy sentiment to heartsick grief and guilt -- was the conversation between Larry and his wife. It suggested that there's an underlying moral and parapsychological order to the show's madness, and that it will eventually be revealed to us.  "Why am I seeing you [all] now, after all this time?" "You're ready now ... You're on the cusp." But on the cusp of what?

Oh, let's not kid ourselves. Murphy and Falchuk cannot possibly have a long-range vision for any of this. Nothing that either of them has ever worked on indicates a talent for -- hell, even an inclination toward -- left-brained qualities such as story structure and character consistency. "Nip/Tuck" and "Popular" both had a "We're just making this up as we go" quality, and despite moments of utter brilliance, "Glee" always was, and remains, a weekly 12-car pileup on the Bad Idea Freeway. These guys have very, very, very short attention spans. You can tell by the sorts of shows they make, and in the case of "Glee," largely abandon when a newer, shinier project becomes available. (Did you watch "Glee" last night? Maybe the most half-assed and disorganized episode yet, and that's saying something; in every closeup of Idina Menzel, you could see the fear and panic in her eyes, as if she were trying to send a psychic distress signal through the TV screen begging somebody, anybody, to give her some direction.)

That's why I haven't bothered hypothesizing about the "rules" of "American Horror Story": Why a ghost can seem "alive" to actual living people, why the maid Moira appears as old to certain characters but young to others. I just don't think it matters that much, or that Murphy and Falchuk gave it much thought before FX said yes to their pitch for a horror series. Yes, yes, on a basic level, I get it; it's ultimately not too different from any other ghost story, a form that presents dead people as manifestations of living people's longings, sins and unfinished business. It's all about what's in the eye, or the heart, of the beholder -- thus Ben realizing that Vivien told him the truth when she said she was raped, and suddenly seeing Moira as an older woman instead of a younger one. (Ben saw the young Moira instead of the old Moira for the same reason that the Armenian home buyer did -- because he's a horndog.)

But really, the parsing of rules regarding ghost sex and ghost rape and ghost pregnancy and appearances and projections and guilt and the desire for redemption (Larry's motivation for his false confession) is ultimately a parlor game. It doesn't explain precisely what sort of universe we're seeing, and why characters who have no prior contact with the house or its inhabitants can instantly "see" dead people and mistake them for living, and why certain characters appear in the condition they were in when they died, while others look just peachy -- and why so many doomed people keep being drawn to the same freaking house. Maybe every character on this show is already dead, or in purgatory. Maybe the series is set in Hell, or on the edge of Hell, or it's all just a disturbed child's daydream. Whatever. I suspect the explanations behind "American Horror Story" will matter even less than the "mythology" of another addictive and pretty clearly ret-conned fantasy drama, "Lost." I'm not watching "American Horror Story" to Figure It All Out. I'm watching it to appreciate the eerie confidence of Jessica Lange, with her Tennessee Williams accent and dancer's hands and Gorgon stare, and Denis O'Hare's deft comedy/tragedy footwork as Larry, and to see just how long Murphy, Falchuk and the gang can continue to sustain this nerve-jangling feat of bravura show-running. One more season? One more week? One more minute? Sooner or later this show will fall apart, or implode like the house in "Poltergiest," and I want to be there when it happens.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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