It’s lurking, always lurking. Peeking out from the corner of my attention like a Goth wallflower that knows I’ll notice sooner or later and finally pay her some attention. Then I’ll see that she’s completely mad and smart and totally horny and even then I’m still not sure she’s such a great idea. But hey, she’s never dull.
I’m talking about AMERICAN HORROR STORY.
You know what I’m talking about, the FX cable series from GLEE and NIP/TUCK creator Ryan Murphy. The one about a dysfunctional ordinary American family who move into a gothic house in Los Angeles that’s full of ghosts. It’s not warm and fuzzy. It’s all messy with sex and blood and murder just like any good show should be.
I’ve been railing for ages against the generic nature of network TV shows, so AMERICAN HORROR STORY should be right up my street in its deliberate kicking against everything generic about mainstream TV. It takes almost everything held sacred by American society and TV and gives it a thorough kicking with fabulous studded bovver boots. The show touches on every topical hot button America is currently wringing its hands over: high school bullying, abortion, infidelity, rape, sexual deviance, serial murder and house ownership.
I admit I’ve been wary of Ryan Murphy’s work, at his angry contempt at the dishonesty and cruelty of straight society, his general misanthropy, his depiction of women as scheming, screaming, manipulative, hysterical monsters. That can get exhausting. He has form for angry, merciless satire attacking the sexual mores and emotional hypocrisies of the middle class and so-called respectable people like doctors, businessmen, sports figures, celebrities and authority figures in general in shows like NIP/TUCK. Even his movie adaptation of August Burroughs’ book RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is shot through with deeply personal anger at adults’ betrayals and abuse of children, and this bitter satirical vision is present in GLEE, where he found the perfect vehicle for sneaking through biting satire and pleas for tolerance using the musical as sugar-coating.
Where other interesting shows use an archetypal story as their basis – BREAKING BAD is Macbeth in American suburbia, SONS OF ANARCHY is Hamlet in a biker gang – AMERICAN HORROR STORY does something much more layered and complex. It combines the gothic story with ironic melodrama, coming off like Tennessee Williams on Red Bull spiked with PCP. There’s a knowing campness about it as it constantly teeters right on the edge of total farce, sometimes tripping right over the line. The hapless family being haunted and manipulated by ghosts are completely oblivious that these weird people that keep popping up to interact with them are in fact dead, since they still think they’re living in a rational universe. The Dad is an ineffectual lump of male smugness and privilege as he tries to salvage a marriage ripped apart by his affair with one of his students. The Mum evolves into a classic heroine of melodrama, an emotional wreck and increasingly martyred as a victim of the schemes of the ghosts: the Mean Girl Ghost wants her unborn baby, the product of a rape by a ghost in a gimp suit (which occurred in the pilot). The teen daughter is angry with her parents and falls in love with the teenage sociopath who murdered a lot of the people that wound up as ghosts in the house, who himself is a ghost.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY is anything but generic and the closest American TV is ever going to get to THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. Like the denizens of Royston Vasey are grotesques and horrors enacting an endless series of darkly comic situation horrors, the ghosts of AMERICAN HORROR STORY are the most proactive, scheming, horny lunatics with the best dialogue and the most fun as they inflict horror upon horror on their victims. In fact, AMERICAN HORROR STORY is practically a sitcom about a bunch of horny ghosts and the clueless family they pull shenanigans on. Everyone is a prisoner and victim of tragic flaws and secrets they can’t let go of, the basic tenets of melodrama. You get the feeling that every tragedy in the show might have been averted if they had all gotten some decent psychiatric help, except the Dad is a psychiatrist and a pretty crap one, which is part of the irony.
I wonder why more hasn’t been written about this show and Ryan Murphy’s work. He seems to occupy the same cultural space as Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes, John Waters and Douglas Sirk. Sirk, a European who began his career in Weimar Germany working with Brecht before embarking on a film career in the 1930s before fleeing the Nazis to decamp to Hollywood, pioneered the school of vibrant, Technicolor melodramas in movies like ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and IMITATION OF LIFE, all carrying layers of symbolism, irony and social commentary under gorgeous surfaces and production values. Almodovar has acknowledged Sirk has a chief influence and it shows in his movies. Todd Haynes’ recent HBO adaptation of MILDRED PIERCE was nothing if not a Sirkian melodrama. John Waters habitually pushes the Sirkian melodrama of his movies into all-out piss-take comedy. Of all of them, Murphy has been the one storyteller who has steadily worked under the structures and constraints of network television. The ironic Sirkian style has been present in all of Murphy’s work all the way back to his WB teen comedy series POPULAR, then became more confident with subsequent shows like NIP/TUCK and POPULAR.
What distinguishes AMERICAN HORROR STORY is the way Murphy uses the conventions of slasher and horror movies as tools for social satire but also to deconstruct the genre by indulging in its more absurd side and even having the ghosts comment on that. The most subversive idea in the show is that murdering someone doesn’t get rid of them. They just come back, more annoying than ever, and they want to have sex with you. Forever.
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