If there’s one thing you can say definitively about Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s terrifying, titillating and twisted new show, American Horror Story, it’s this:
It’s not subtle.
Yes, the freak flag flies louder and prouder than it ever has on Murphy’s previous productions here. His love of the grotesque, tempered for the high school dramas Glee and Popular and flourishing but not yet at fever pitch in the later seasons of Nip/Tuck, is fully on display in this gothic horror romp that pulls no punches. In the spirit of the show—which apparently never met a clunky metaphor it didn’t like—I can say that watching the pilot episode of American Horror Story is indeed a little like getting into the ring with a prize fighter. The unceasing flurry of blows—Blood! Sex! Violence!—landing at breakneck speed might just leave you wanting to tap out by the first commercial break.
Still, there’s appeal in the show’s fearlessness. And certainly the cast is impressive. Connie Britton (best known for her role as Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights), Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Francis Conroy, and Denis O’Hare are fully committed. Unlike Murphy’s previous shows, there are no winks and nudges, no whiff of camp to these proceedings; the tone is dark and disturbing right from the opening frames.
Our drama opens on a title card that reads “1978” which dissolves to the slightly dilapidated front yard of a stately brick Queen Anne home where a little girl stands. The camera lovingly lingers on a wind chime made of skeleton bones (no pink flamingos or friendly garden gnomes here!) and then a stone flies through one of the stained glass windows. The girl turns to face the camera and we see she has Down Syndrome, and then red-headed twin boys—like the Worst Weasley Twins Ever—wielding baseball bats come up the walk. They hurl a rude insult at the girl, who creepily intones that they’re gonna die (Horror Flick Cliché #1!) and proceed into the house where they smash and bash merrily with their aluminum bats while the soundtrack plays an eerie pop oldie.
Things get a little real when they find a dead possum in a pool of blood and then things start moving in the shadows of the basement. Weasley #1 suddenly starts to realize this house is freaking creepy. He gets separated from Weasley #2 and starts calling repeatedly for W2—Troy!—so they can get the heck out of there. Alas, it is too late for poor Troy, a sweep of his brother’s flashlight reveals him bloodied, his throat cut.
Then we fade to a new title card that reads “Today.” Our heroine Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) is at the OB/GYN office talking about how her period is regulating itself, which is good because her husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) really doesn’t like all that blood. (WTF? That’s kind of a weird fact to share, no?) Doc suggests hormone pills, swearing they’ll make her feel 10 years younger and then he delivers Clunky Metaphor #1 of the hour: “Your body is like a house, you can fix the tiles in the bathroom and the kitchen but if the foundation is decaying, you’re wasting your time.”
Cut to Viv coming home to suspicious loud noises in her house. She calls 911 to report it, then grabs a knife and goes to investigate herself, of course. The noises are coming from her bedroom, and she opens the door….and we hear a man say “Oh shit!” and as a horrified Viv backs away, a naked Dylan McDermott runs out, apologizing. But Viv ain’t having it and she slashes out with the knife and cuts his arm.
Soon enough, we’re back at that lovely brick home from the opener, looking much spiffier. A realtor leads them through the house and we learn that Ben is a psychiatrist who plans to see patients in a home office (a Very Bad Idea). Viv spies a mural peeking out from under some peeling wallpaper and the realtor tells us the previous inhabitants, a gay couple who restored the house probably covered it before they—oops, full disclosure—died in a murder-suicide in the basement. Their daughter, Violet (Taissa Faminga), thinks that’s a huge selling point and says they’ll take it.
The passage of time/days in this show is pretty hazy, but they buy the house and move in and we see Violet walking through a school lunchroom puffing a cigarette. We hear the requisite Mean Girls clique discussing how the leader let her boyfriend snort coke off her nipples before they barge over and ream Violet out for smoking. The girls end up fighting and the lead Mean Girl, Leah, tries to make Violet eat her cigarette. Vi’s feisty, though, and spits in her face and runs away.
Viv is peeling away old wallpaper when she hears a noise and whirls around to find…dun dun dun, the Down Syndrome girl from the teaser! She’s older, with longer hair (though I had a tough time believing she was in her 40s) but still just as creepy. She looks at Viv, and the Worst Weasleys suddenly pop up flanking Vivien for a frame, and the girl repeats her favorite phrase of “You’re going to die in here.” Then, in bustles Constance (Jessica Lange) looking like the fifth Golden Girl just strolling in from the lanai. We learn the girl’s name is Adelaide and she’s Constance’s daughter and that they live next door where she runs a doggie day care….and apparently have no concept of personal space.
Constance sends Adelaide home, then proves to be quite the piece of work, referring to her daughter as a monster and a mongoloid both. She also pockets some silverware while Viv isn’t looking. But Viv is still rightfully appalled that these people have waltzed into her home and totally blesses her heart right out the door, Tami Taylor style. Before she goes, Constance gives her a housewarming gift of sage to banish the bad spirits in the house.
Surprisingly, we see Vivien burning it as she moves through the house, until she comes to a trap door in the hallway ceiling. She heads into the attic, pulls the light chain and screams bloody murder. Ben comes running and sees what freaked his wife out: it’s a full-body black rubber S&M-style catsuit suspended from the rafters and looking very lifelike. They banter a bit and laugh it off and then Ben takes it out to the garbage cans.
With that taken care of, we cut to Ben in his home office talking to a patient. He’s a blonde teenaged boy talking about how he has fantasies about shooting up his schoolmates Columbine-style. The kid, Tate, continues talking about his murder fantasies and we see a creepy flash of him seeing himself standing behind Ben with blood running down his face. Then we see him hanging in the doorway of Violet’s bathroom and suggesting she cut vertically rather than horizontally if she’s serious about killing herself. So helpful.
Next it’s night time (Is this all one day? I have no idea) and Ben and Viv are in bed sleeping, then suddenly it’s time for more naked McDermott. Ben gets up and sleepwalks downstairs and lights a fire in the fireplace before Viv comes down and finds him. He stands a little close to that blazing fire, and when we cut to the commercial break, which included an all-beef hot dog commercial, I amused myself with weenie roast jokes till the show came back. (I have to add that this is a don’t blink show. I rewound the DVR about five or six times to catch things I missed before we even hit this first break.)
Back in the garden, Viv is hanging some laundry when an older woman (Conroy) appears wearing a traditional housekeeper/maid outfit. To no one’s surprise, she introduces herself as Moira O’Hare, the housekeeper. They bicker mildly about how best to clean floorboards and she invites herself in to ostensibly call a cab, but ends up petitioning for her job back. Then Ben comes in and Viv introduces Moira….but when the camera pans back to her, it’s no longer Conroy but a foxy young 20-something (Alexandra Breckenridge) playing the maid. Ben, who seems to perpetually think with his little head instead of his big one, is immediately aroused or something….because he’s a SEX ADDICT, and he’s shocked when Viv says she wants to hire her. He’s hilariously peeling a very phallic banana in this scene and after Viv’s pronouncement and Moira leaves, he tries to get frisky with his wife, but she pushes him away again. (Banana breath?)
Ben is talking with Tate again, asking if he’s been taking his medication. Tate admits he hasn’t because he’s afraid it’ll cause erectile dysfunction and he’s met a girl. Cut to he and Violet comparing their arm slashes (how romantic!) Tate charmingly writes “Taint” on a blackboard while Vi exposits about dad’s affair, which came after her mom’s miscarriage/delivery of a 7-month-old stillborn baby, which led to the big move. Then Ben happens by and busts him, telling Tate to leave and not come into the house. (Bet you’re rethinking the wisdom of that home office now, Benny boy.)
Naked McDermott alert! Ben wanders out of the shower, wondering where his razors have disappeared to, and spies the sexy Young Maid in their guest room…masturbating. He runs off to his bedroom, jerks himself off and then cries (No, really) for his sad, sex-addicted self. Then he happens to look out the window and see a creepy burned guy down there among the laundry looking up at him. (Bet he got an eyeful). Ben runs out (clothed) but the man is gone.
Next we find Vivien walking into the kitchen and putting away groceries, she hears a noise and whirls to find every cabinet wide open and Adelaide standing there giggling creepily. Viv insists Adelaide not just walk into her house whenever she feels like it anymore. Oh yeah, or tell Viv she’s gonna die. Constance blows it off, says Addy says that to everyone, but Viv is pissed. When Addy asks about petting the Harmon’s dog, Viv grabs her face and makes her promise not to come in anymore. She agrees and as they leave, she goes to pet the dog, who tries to bite her and Adelaide says “She shouldn’t have done that.” (I’m kinda scared for that dog honestly.) Then she leaves and Constance stays behind to first apologize, then follow it a beat later with a threat that if Vivien ever touches her kid again, Connie will break her arm. I don’t think that’s an approved Welcome Wagon greeting, Connie.
Back in Ben’s office, Young Maid comes in while Ben is doing paperwork and asks permission to “clean” in there. But she’s not talking about the furniture, she comes over and straddles Ben and opens her blouse, inviting him to touch her. He’s shaking and sweating like a junkie being presented with a dime bag, but he is trying to resist. Then Violet comes in and sees dear old Dad under Old Maid (the Conroy-era Moira) and retreats in horror.
Things get worse when Violet goes to school the next day and the Mean Girls attack en masse, bruising her face, until Violet gets the upper hand when she burns Leah’s arm with a cigarette and teachers come and break up the fight.
Back at the house, Vivien has finally peeled all the damn wallpaper and revealed the twisted mural depicting women being tortured by demons. She finds it comforting (!) she tells Ben when he points out that whoever painted it had some deep psychological issues. He then busts out Clunky Metaphor #2, which isn’t so much a metaphor as a meta reference to the whole show: “All art and myths are just creations to give us some sense of control over the things we’re scared of.”
Ben’s natural Viagra must be kicking in again, because he tries to put the moves on Viv, telling her how pretty she is, and she resists his advance…again. This time Ben loses his cool and throws around the wallpaper scrapers. He complains she’s punishing him, she complains that he’s a selfish asshole because he cheated and he’s the one trying to play the victim even though she had to carry a stillborn baby to term inside her. He complains it was his son too, and Viv says “And you buried your sorrow in some twenty-year-old’s pussy.”
Then Ben reveals his real anger: Viv got a dog. No, really. He’s upset that Viv turned to the dog for comfort (Not that way! Although I wouldn’t put it past this show to dabble in beastiality) and snuggling instead of him. They talk about how they haven’t had sex in a year, and then suddenly the embargo is broken as they start kissing and going at it on the living room floor.
Back to Violet complaining to Tate that she wants to kill Mean Girl Leah. Tate is doing a full-on Christian Slater in Heathers, suggesting that if Violet doesn’t want to kill her, she should scare the shit out of her. He stops short of suggesting Ich Luge bullets, but comes up with a devious plan that hinges on drug dealing. He is such a good influence!
Speaking of devious plans, Vivien is slathering lotion on her legs in the bedroom when she looks up to find….a man in that black rubber S&M suit at the bedroom door. She’s still feeling frisky from their afternoon romp and suggests they go for round two, assuming that Ben is just role playing. But as they get down to it, we see Ben sleepwalking into the kitchen, lighting the stove burners and ready to stick his hand in, until Constance pops up and stops him, telling him it’s not his time and stroking his face. Ew.
Meanwhile, in the bedroom, mystery rubber man and Viv are still going at it, and while Connie Britton’s acting chops can’t be denied after FNL….she could take a few notes from Meg Ryan on how to fake an orgasm. But at least she doesn’t cry afterward. Instead she looks shell-shocked, huddling on her side of the bed, as Ben pads back into the room. She numbly says “I love you” and he robotically answers “I love you too.” (All together now: SO ROMANTIC!)
After another commercial break, we see Violet leading Mean Girl Leah down the basement steps as she babbles about cocaine shipments being smuggled in on lobster boats or some such. Leah doesn’t suspect a thing, but oh no, she turns the corner and there’s freaky Tate sitting in a chair in wait for her. He yells for Violet to turn off the lights and in the flashes of darkness images flash of Tate tackling then choking Leah, and gradually the images change to a creature with vicious teeth and claws attacking her. It slashes her cheek and Violet turns the lights on to see a bloodied Leah run out the door screaming. Freaked out by the mystery figure she saw, Violet screams at Tate to get out and leave her alone. (Ah, the turmoil of young love!)
Cut to Ben jogging in the bright daylight as he slowly realizes a car is following him. He runs faster and then suddenly there’s a man chasing him. And he catches him and we see it’s the half-burned man who’d been lurking in the yard. He tells Ben his sad story about how he used to live in their house and “the voices” told him to set his family on fire. He warns that they have to get out of the house, and Ben ultimately freaks out and tells him to mind his own business. He stumbles away and Dennis O’Hare gives the most chilling half-smile ever.
Back at the house, intruder Constance is in Vivien’s bedroom trying on some of her jewelry when Old Maid catches her and orders her to leave. These two have a history apparently and trade barbs until Constance threatens her with a final cryptic statement: “Don’t make me kill you again.”
DUN DUN DUN!
Then apparently it’s some other day, and we see Ben sitting at the kitchen table, as Vivien comes through the door. They talk about dinner and Viv said she wants Indian food. Ben laughs and says she only wants that when she’s pregnant….and Viv nods.
We fade out on them hugging and a conflicted sadness on Ben’s face as I wonder if the baby will come out with its own little rubber suit.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.