Some Uninformed Impressions of ‘American Horror Story’

I’ve watched approximately 23 minutes of American Horror Story, FX’s new haunted house yarn spun by Glee & Nip/Tuck creators Murphy and Falchuk. There’s a part of me, the part that follows TV critics on Twitter and blogs who love AHS, that wants to go to the “Catch Up” category on On Demand and immerse myself in the series. But there’s another part of me that is avoiding AHS like the plague. Here’s why:

AHS seems incredibly misogynistic. Granted, I’ve seen less than half an episode, BUT the part that I did see turned me off from watching any more because it was so violently sexist. There are critics on both sides of the fence on this one. One of my favorite TV thinkers argues that the show is not sexist – it’s just following horror tropes. But this doesn’t preclude the show from being misogynistic; the horror hallmarks AHS calls on are not exempt from scrutiny just because they’re traditional to the genre.

If David Lynch had no class or vision, he would have made AHS. By that I mean the show is sensational for sensationalism’s sake. The gimp suit, the nurse costumes, the two versions of Moira etc. make great visuals and one-off mysteries but don’t really serve the larger plot. Which brings me to the next problem…

There is no larger plot. Remember when Lost ended and you felt lied to and hurt like when you realized dinosaurs never existed? Well, even though my 23 minutes of AHS viewing is not long enough to get a sense of the story arc, it was enough to tell that the show is headed down the Lostian path. AHS is still figuring out where it wants to go, which concerns me because a show which relies heavily on serialization should already know it’s destination (at least for the first season). But it’s clear that Murphy & Falchuk’s latest project is flying by the seat of it’s proverbial pants.

Perhaps Julieanne Smolinski at NYMag said it best: “did NO ONE make plans to write this series beyond, ‘It’s a haunted house. Sometimes there are butts.’ ???” Side note: “Ghosts and Butts” is actually an early Jane Austen novel, but she stole the premise from the Bronte sisters. The Bronte version was heavy on the ghosts whereas Austen really focused on the butts. See what I mean? No focus in this show! It makes me dream up fantastic yet non-existent 19th century Brit lit rather than pay attention to what’s actually going on because the creators don’t even know what’s going on!

For now, AHS can sit in it’s little creepy box and maybe, when I feel like I won’t give up in frustration because I think there won’t actually be any reward for my efforts after the gimp suit fades, I’ll watch American Horror Story.

Downton Abbey (Season 1) – Austenian Redux

This weekend, I had a marathon viewing of the first season of Downton Abbey (courtesy of Netflix Instant). I had heard a lot of good things about the show from friends and critics, and it was high time I checked it out. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of the series, delicately weaves the story of the personal and public dramas of the Grantham family and their servants in the 19-aughts. It is at times painfully British, brimming with lingering looks full of meaning and sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, and at other times witty and modern. But above all, Downton Abbey is Austenian to a T.

It’s 1912 and the RMS Titanic, the unsinkable ship, has sunk. Among her crew were the heirs to the Downton Abbey estate, and now Lord Grantham, the “owner” of Downton (owner in-so-much as he is in legal possession of the estate despite the fact that his finances alone were unable to keep the estate afloat) is left in the lurch. According to the law, the estate must pass into the hands of the next male heir, and having only three daughters, Lord Grantham is forced to accept his third cousin, whom he has never met, as the next recipient of the fortune. But Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess, and his wife, the Lady Grantham, are bent on making sure the fortune passes into the hands of the eldest daughter, Mary. Certainly, this is a plot Austen could get behind, especially considering it’s strikingly similar to the opening premise of Pride and Prejudice.

The similarities between Downton and Pride and Prejudice are numerous (a strong-willed daughter who insists on defying the rules and is only interested in marrying for love, the political and personal game playing of English nobility, and sibling rivalry just to name a few), but unlike P&P, Downton does not exist solely in the vacuum of upper-class living. Much of the focus is on the servants below decks and the blurring of the line between classes and genders as the 20th century rolls on. Here, then, I’m reminded more than a little of Gosford Park. Hmm, wonder why… Oh yeah, Fellowes wrote that too.

And Fellowes’ fingerprints cannot be ignored. Downton is very much an auteur piece, and perhaps what I enjoyed most about it is its sense of humor (which Fellowes is known for). The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is the oldest of the group, and therefore presumably the most traditional, but her wit sparkles and she is surprisingly amenable to modern customs (except for electricity and telephones). She pushes hardest for Mary to become the proper heir and takes the many changes the family undergoes in stride. Fellowes even offers the audiences a few winks, like an aside in a Shakespearean play that tells a joke only the audience gets. On one particularly trying night, Lady Grantham and Mary must cover up the true circumstances of a guest’s death. In the morning, when the dead body is discovered by the rest of the house, Lord Grantham tells his butler that they must not dwell on it around the women because their sensibilities are so much more fragile!

Downton has substance beyond the humor, of course, substance that is strikingly relevant in the current economic times as the lines between the classes have quickly become starker and larger. Indeed, multiple posts could be written on Downton (the Dowager Countess warrants one to herself), and perhaps more will come, but for now I’m looking forward to season 2, which by all reports, is much more controversial (and possibly not as good), leaving the realm of Austen behind and taking on a more Dickensian tone.

‘Hell On Wheels’ Is Heavy, But Not Without Momentum

In preparation for the second episode of AMC’s new series Hell On Wheels, which airs tonight, I caught up on the pilot episode this morning. I’d skimmed a review earlier in the week, but I didn’t want to spoil anything for myself so I didn’t read too deeply. But what I gathered was that, given time, it had potential. And after my initial viewing, I agree.

The pilot is slow moving and its tone is as heavy as the steel the railroad was built with, but I trust (hope) it will gain momentum and pick up speed. I appreciated that the show left much of the details of each character’s circumstances opaque and allowed the viewer to fill in the gaps. At the same time, I’m worried that opaqueness might be indicative of a lack of depth and direction rather than intentional mystery. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

Our (anti) hero Cullen Bohannan is as stolid as a granite pillar but without any depth. Yet. He’s outshone by the supporting cast, including Colm Meaney as wonderfully evil railroad baron Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant and Ted Levine as the railroad foreman.

Bohannan’s quest to avenge his wife’s death by killing the men who murdered her is cliched, but I hope that the subplots will complicate this enough to imbue the show with some uniqueness.

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