I thought I was done listening to Ryan Adams–got tired of his five albums a year, his penchant in interviews for coming off as the biggest jerk on the planet (this side of Kanye), his haircut–but his new album, Fire and Ashes is lovely and I totally recommend picking it up.
Also, if you can, check out the Jim Jones Revue:
I’m stalling, because my initial excitement to write a little about American Horror Story has gone flaccid with a day’s reflection. I think it’s because I’m excited about The Walking Dead tonight and I worry there’s not enough enthusiasm for the creepy-crawly in my short little body for two (three, including Dexter) shows that get their kicks with the slap-and-tickle of a good jump.
But that’s not it, really. I think I’m unenthusiastic because I see where this show is going: the same place that all of Ryan Murphy’s shows go: half-assed crazy.
Here’s the deal: it seems like Ryan Murphy is less of an original in television as he is a brilliant junk-collector with a nasty streak. Nip/Tuck was really just a medical procedure show that dealt with elective surgery rather than emergency (or necessary) surgery. It had the same basic premise as Trapper John, MD, or Chicago Hope or St. Elsewhere except the patients were uptight, culture-fueled narcissists with white-people problems. Glee is really just any show on ABC Family or The WB except the kids break into song and have no concept of limits, parameters, or the day-to-day reality of high school. And they’re self-aware, culture-fueled narcissists with white-people problems (even the non-white kids).
American Horror Story takes that formula and jacks it into hyperdrive. Ryan Murphy, in two episodes, has basically ripped off (and I say ripped off because he is unapologetic in his junk-collecting: he knows he’s stealing from other sources, and he knows you know, and he doesn’t care, because that’s the point) The Strangers, Poltergeist, Zodiac, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, most of the B-film “trailers” from Grind House, Helter Skelter, Funny Games, The Sixth Sense, Streetcar Named Desire, a good deal of Cronenberg, and this weird French film called Twentynine Palms.
This is not to say it doesn’t work: it’s creepy and funny and Jessica Lange as the requisite, Blanche Dubois-esque neighbor is terrific, as is Connie Britton as a woman grieving over her miscarriage and sham of a marriage. It’s shot beautifully (if you consider the color scheme: black, snot green, snot yellow, and brown beautiful) and the show, despite all of its borrowings, manages to convey a sick sense of dread.
Here’s the problem: like David E. Kelley, Ryan Murphy has not met a trope, motif, theme, plot twist, or character he will not chuck into the pot to see what happens to the overall recipe. You can see it happening already: there’s ghost next-door-neighbors (or are they?), a new pregnancy for Connie Britton (or is it?), and some guy in a rubber suit– like the gimp in Pulp Fiction who may be Dylan McDermott or may be the father or may be both or may be neither (or is…you get the idea). There’s a down-syndrome kid, a maid who can shape-shift, a haunted basement, somnambulistic homicides, a burn-victim stalker, and a woman from the McDermott character’s past who may or may not rip a page out of the Fatal Attraction Handbook for Spurned Women.
The show’s been on for two weeks. That’s around 88 minutes. I just reread the last paragraph and even I can’t keep up with all of the stuff I just wrote. This is the same thing Nip/Tuck and Glee ran into: when you include EVERYTHING, you will have to make story compromises that will ruin EVERYTHING. Think of the second season of Glee: the characters seemed less like characters and more like signboards: in his insistence to say everything he wanted to say, to include every song he wanted sung, to tell every story he wanted to tell, the characters were forced to act in completely erratic ways. Some weeks they seemed to be fine, the next they were suicidal. Kurt was in love, then he hated everyone, then he hated himself, then he loved Lady Gaga. Rachel was calculating, then naive, then a bitch, then a savior. You get the idea. Glee wasn’t a serialized musical; it was Saved by the Bell on crystal meth, with songs.
It’s already happening on American Horror Story. The characters have already been through enough shit to put me in a corner, curled up and weeping, for weeks. But they still snap off clever, bitchy lines to each other like they’re vying for Paul Lynde’s attention on Hollywood Squares. Episode 2 featured a group of teenage, serial-killer obsessed groupies who kidnapped and attempted to recreate the murders that took place in the house forty years before (seriously, how much shit has to happen in one house before you just set fire to it? Oh wait, the burn victim tried to set fire to it and it didn’t work–it just made him a burn victim…). They made Connie Britton and her daughter change into nurse outfits, duct-taped them to chairs, waved knives around, and seemed pretty hellbent on killing them. The mother/daughter escaped because the evil in the house killed the groupies (as well as a poisoned cupcake–don’t ask). As far as I know, the daughter character WENT TO SCHOOL THE NEXT DAY! Holy shit! Forget drone missiles, let’s just shoot this family at Al Qaeda; they’ll bitch and moan, but they have spines of…what?…steel?…shit, even steel’s too soft. Diamond? Diamond spines? You see what this show is doing to me?
Or maybe they’re dumb. That’s what it comes down to, really. It’s what happens on Glee and what happened on Nip/Tuck. When you throw ten tons of shit on a character and then try to make the audience believe that said character will not suffer a nervous breakdown or incur a drug habit or generally act as if nothing’s wrong from week-to-week, you are telling the audience that the characters are too dumb to realize how much shit they’re under.
Or, maybe Ryan Murphy thinks the audience is too dumb to realize that.
Forget the “moral rot” that Ken Tucker refers to when he wrote about the show, forget the weird obsession Ryan Murphy has with the mutilation of women’s bodies (or the mutilation of women’s psyches due to their insecurity over their bodies). I actually like those things about American Horror Story. In American Horror Story Ryan Murphy is, like in Glee, like in Nip/Tuck, running a weekly commentary on how society tells us to look, behave, dress, talk, and believe, and the commentary is pretty fascinating.
Nasty and obtuse, but fascinating.
He’s also supposed to be telling a story. Stories have focused goals and understandable character motivations. You don’t have to like how a character behaves, but you have to believe they would behave that way. At one point Dylan McDermott is jogging when he runs into the homicidal burn-victim. Keep in mind that this fellow has already told McDermott that he’s:
1. Been following him
2. Lived in the house the McDermott character moved into with his wife and child
3. Been charged with killing his wife and daughter by setting fire to them, in the house McDermott moved into with his wife and child.
I don’t know about you, but that kind of information means that I DON’T TALK TO THAT GUY ANYMORE. EVER.
Dylan McDermott has a whole conversation with him, asks his advice, and THEN FOLLOWS IT. Now, it’s entirely possible that this guy, this homicidal burn-victim, is simply a figment of McDermott’s imagination, but does that make the situation better? Should that comfort us? Should it comfort McDermott? He’s a psychiatrist. Shouldn’t he maybe talk to someone about this? What would he tell one of his patients? Actually, it looks like he fucks most of his patients, so…
Maybe everything is a figment of everyone’s imagination. If that’s true I’m done watching.
It’s only a matter of time before the elephant Murphy’s balancing on the tip of his cane crushes him, again, so maybe I’ll stick around to see it happen.
While I’m on a metaphor tear, I’ll give you another: sometimes you can throw ten thousand things into a pot, crank up the heat, and get soup. Sometimes you can do the same thing and get sewer water.
It’ll be interesting to see what we get.