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Featured TV on DVD Review: American Horror Story: Season One

September 25th, 2012

American Horror Story: Season One - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

I honestly knew nothing about American Horror Story when I got an offer to review it, nothing except it had earned high praise from critics. I didn't know anything about the cast, I didn't know what network it aired on, I wasn't even 100% sure what genre it was. (Although having the word "Horror" in the title gave me a clue.) When the screener arrived, my first reaction was, "What the hell is that man wearing?" but my second reaction was, "Seventeen Emmy nominations!" That was tied for the most out of any series this year. (Mad Men also had seventeen nominations.) Expectations couldn't be higher. Can the show possibly live up to them? Or would it have been better if I didn't know how well it had done during Awards Season?

The Show

After a short prologue involving a young girl with Downs Syndrome, Addie, and two twins, Troy and Bryan, we are introduced to the Harmon family, Vivien and Ben and their daughter Violet. The family is going through some issues, including Vivien giving birth to a stillborn child and Ben being caught in an affair with one of his students, Hayden McClaine. They decide to move across the country to Los Angeles to start a fresh. However, the house they buy has a history. The previous owners, a gay couple, committed murder-suicide, and that's not the only recent deaths. (Although the realtor doesn't mention them.)

Starting fresh doesn't quite work out. Vivien meets their new next door neighbors, Constance Langdon and her daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), whom we has previously seen as a younger child. Addie had wandered into the Harmon home and tells Vivien she's going to die in "here", a very similar warning to the one she gave Troy and Bryan. It becomes quite clear that neither Addie nor Constance understand the ideas of boundaries. Meanwhile, Violet immediately becomes the target of bullies. Finally, Ben continues his psychiatric practice in his home with a new patient, Tate. He has constant violent nightmares / fantasies, and psychotic tenancies, but Ben is determined to help. Tate also starts up a friendship with Violet, something Ben really doesn't like. Tate and Violet do have some similarities, including emotional problems. (Violet is a cutter.)

So far, the show is about a family dealing with serious problems, but it starts to go full horror with the arrival of Moira O'Hara, the housekeeper for the previous couple. She just assumes she still has the job. At first Vivien is not interested in hiring a housekeeper, but Moira points out older houses have problems and she's been there long enough to deal with them best. So what's so 'horror' about her? As Ben sees her, Moira is about 30 years younger. There's definitely something supernatural going on there. Later on, Ben meets Larry Harvey, a previous resident of the house. He claims the house possessed him and caused him to kill his wife and two daughters by burning them alive, in the process giving himself third degree burns. He says the house is evil and whatever it was that possessed him will attack the Harmons. They have to get out of that house.

We are not even finished the first episodes, but already at this point, we start to get into spoiler troubles. This is not really surprising given this show has a single story-arc with a developed mythology. At least it feels that way for a bit. After a couple episodes, I got the feeling that the writers were just throwing as much as they could into the mix and hoping in the end they will be able to pull it all together. It's kind of a mixed track record in that regard. There are some episodes that work, including the two-part Halloween and the finale builds up to something, but doesn't quite reach the climax that it should. Part of the problem is that there's too much to deal with and enough fails to connect that it hurts the overall effectiveness of the show. Also, part of the problem is the vast majority of the characters are repulsive. Vivien, Violet, and Moira are the only characters that are in more than half the episodes that are not hideous people. Luke and Addie would also be in that list, but they are only in six episodes, and even then, they are side characters at the most. Even so, American Horror Story is stylish and effective in creating a mood, even if the style overwhelms the substance.

As for those 17 Emmy nominations, I don't think that would have happened if the show was treated as a TV series and not a mini-series. The mini-series categories have a lot less competition than the Drama categories have. Jessica Lange would have gotten a nomination regardless, and it would have picked up a few techincal nods, but it wouldn't have been tied for first place overall.

The Extras

The only extra on the first disc in an audio commentary on the pilot the creator, Ryan Murphy. The other extras are on disc three starting with The Murder House presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood, a seven-minute look at the horrors that happened within the house. Behind The Fright is a 15-minute making of featurette. Overture to Horror is a nine-minute look at the creation of the title sequence. Finally, there's Out of the Shadows, a 15-minute look at all of the ghosts stuck in the house.

The technical presentation is excellent, with sharp details, even in the darker scenes. (And there are a lot of darker scenes.) The contrast is excellent, the colors are strong, you don't have to worry about compressional artifacts. The audio is solid with clear dialogue and more than enough ambient sound to add to the overall atmosphere.

Finally, the Blu-ray costs $5 or 20% more than the DVD, which is an excellent price for a TV on DVD release.

The Verdict

American Horror Story started out setting up a good mythology before throwing too many horror clichés into the mix. It's stylish and has a good mood, but it is not as good as its Emmy record would indicate. Extras on the Season One DVD and Blu-ray are good and for fans of the show it is worth picking up. If you haven't seen it, but are a fan of the genre, give it a rental first.

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