American Horror Story: A Bewitching Travesty

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Juan Barquin/Columnist

There’s an urban legend in the world of television that always scares the pants off me. There’s a name you say three times in your bathroom mirror while all the lights are off, and once the spell has been cast, it results in a tactless new television series. That name is Ryan Murphy.

This is a name synonymous with some of the most unbelievably popular shows on television, from the teen tunes of “Glee” to the not-so-sexy surgery of “Nip/Tuck.” FX, the channel on which “Nip/Tuck” once aired its six seasons, is home to another one of Murphy’s series.

A long way from the privileged white gay world of “The New Normal” is the dark, dreary and disturbed “American Horror Story.” While its existence is rare considering the lack of horror based programming, the delightful “Hannibal” and tiresome “The Walking Dead” as other inclusions, by no means is it one that stifles the need for more genre works on television.

Murphy, with co-creator Brad Falchuk, has created an unstable experiment of a series, one that finds pleasure in showing audiences the most ridiculous things without an ounce of real love for horror. The series is split into stand-alone seasons, offering a new cast, location, period and theme every year.

The first was “Murder House,” the second was “Asylum” and this week kicks off the third, “Coven.” Each season may be its own work of art, but one thing remains the same: the sheer laziness of the writing. While “Coven” remains to be seen as problematic or praise-worthy, both seasons of “American Horror Story” have been riddled with issues.

Casual sexism and racism are the least of worries when it comes to the series, as each season’s story overwhelms one with disgust when they realize exactly what’s wrong with it. What’s wrong is that “American Horror Story” uses provocation to disguise the fact that its an amalgam of every horror trope and stereotype strung together through a series of unrelated, incredibly gratuitous, acts of sexual assault and murder used for the sake of shock value.

As much as I might enjoy watching all sorts of gore, torture and supernatural insanity on film, the show makes a strong case for why it doesn’t work as well through the medium of television. The series finds itself twisting and turning aimlessly, desperately trying to fill its thirteen episode length with filler characters who are introduced and disposed of within an episode or two.

One such character from “Asylum” is that of Anne Frank, or at least a woman who believes she is the Holocaust survivor, who exists for the sole purpose of establishing a character as a Nazi. This fact is as useless to the series, which focuses on the lives of multiple asylum patients and workers in the sixties, as her character arc was. Given, the random moments and characters are sometimes a blessing, as they draw away from the dreadful main story unfolding at a snail’s pace.

So why, exactly, is it that “American Horror Story” is such a popular series that I’m somehow drawn into watching on a weekly basis? Because there’s always a light in the darkness for those who press on, or at least that’s what a bunch of movies have told me. That light is a cast of actors who actually make for a show that’s damn entertaining to watch, regardless of how shamelessly bad the writing is.

Whereas something like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” is just plain bad on all levels, “American Horror Story” is lucky to have a cast of women (and James Cromwell as a much-appreciated male addition) that, by some black magic, lift it up to a level of pure entertainment. Solely sticking to the recent “Asylum” –  because blocking out the memory of all the latex ghost rape in “Murder House” is something I’m still trying to do – it’s really a special treat to just watch some of the cast go camp and crazy while others sadly stick to being serious.

It’s nearly impossible to deny the fact that Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe and Jessica Lange are the shows most valuable players, with one suffering constant abuse, another embracing a gleefully devilish possession and the last being the only one who actually seems to understand character development. “American Horror Story” will never stop being Lange’s game, always delivering an interesting performance regardless of the writing, and her involvement in its third season is reason enough to go on watching.

As a matter of fact, after weeks and weeks of frustration with “Asylum,” it is her talent that delivers what could be considered the only genuinely great thing to come from the series to date: a musical dream sequence in which Lange sings and dances to Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game.” It’s just as messily crafted as the rest of the series, but it is a moment of pure camp that is like a breath of fresh air amidst all the disappointment.

With “Coven” drawing near, I begin to wonder how Murphy and Falchuk will make a mess of things this year. Considering the themes include “witches, incest, slavery and voodoo,” it shouldn’t be hard to imagine the train wreck that’s coming. Much like a train wreck though, I’ll keep watching “American Horror Story” as I drive by slowly and crash myself. It may be the cast, it may be my penchant for bad television (I’m looking at you “Scandal”), or maybe, just maybe, the Ryan Murphy urban legend is real and I’ll never escape the curse.

“American Horror Story: Coven” premieres October 9 on FX.

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