Taken Vivien to forgive Ben
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.. "Glee's" Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have made a horror series for TV and, eventually, it starts to work. Premiering Wednesday on FX, the series - about a family from Boston who moves into an old house in Los Angeles after dad dallies with a young woman who isn't his wife - is a patchwork of influences from such disparate sources as "The Amityville Horror," Diane Arbus photographs, Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Suddenly Last Summer," Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," the "Scary Movie" franchise, gothic romances by the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier, and whatever overwrought soap opera may be biting the daytime dust this week.
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. The characters include the psychiatrist father, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott); his wife, Vivien (Connie Britton), who has kept him at arm's length for a year as she wrestles with trying to forgive him; their moody, rebellious teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who cuts herself; and Ben's teenage Boo Radley-like patient, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), who likes to make Ben squirm with graphic descriptions of what he'd like to do with Violet. Then there are the neighbors, fading Southern belle busybody Constance (Jessica Lange, all but picking her teeth with the remnants of all the scenery she's chewed as she volleys between an Amanda Wingfield and a Violet Venable), and her Down syndrome daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), whom Constance calls "the mongoloid" and who keeps popping up in the Harmons' house to warn people that they are going to die.
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. Frances Conroy plays Moira, the housekeeper, who has been working at the house for years and who found the previous occupants dead from a murder-suicide in the basement. Actually, Conroy plays Moira the way Vivien sees her, a steely middle-aged woman with a lot of Mrs. Danvers to her. Alexandra Breckinridge plays Moira as Ben and the rest of the world see her, a younger hottie wearing a sexy French maid outfit with black stockings and a garter belt who offers Ben more than a light dusting. Denis O'Hare is Larry Harvey, who murdered his wife and daughter because the voices told him to set them on fire. Half his face is destroyed and he's dying of brain cancer, but between sudden appearances out of nowhere to warn Ben about the evils in the house, he muses that he should go onstage since he has nothing left to lose.
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.. The loopiness of the script, combined with unsettlingly jerky camerawork, especially in Wednesday's premiere episode (the camera calms down a bit in Episodes 2 and 3), make the actual horror aspects of the show passably effective. But what's lacking in the premiere episode is the kind of "don't open that door!" and "someone's behind you!" suspense that Hitchcock, most notably, built into his best films. The excesses of characters like Constance, Moira and Larry are almost darkly funny - no one could take them seriously - and it's an intriguing concept for them to keep us off guard and, conceptually, more vulnerable to a gotcha moment of terror. But those moments often lack the preliminary suspense to make us hold our breath until the door is opened and a character looks over his or her shoulder to find something wicked this way coming. Even if it isn't the scariest series ever, "Horror Story" still has tasty performances by several characters, chief among them Lange and Conroy. When they have a scene together, it's TV magic. O'Hare and Peters are also pretty terrific. McDermott and Britton have the toughest job here, though, because they have to be the "normal" ones, marital difficulties notwithstanding. Both actors are adequate, but they are sometimes asked to make their respective characters believable in unbelievable situations.
Given how long it's taken Vivien to forgive Ben his trespasses, would she be as acquiescent as she is when he returns to Boston because his former lover is in the bin? Then she flips entirely yet again and becomes the disgruntled home buyer from hell when she tells the real estate agent either put the house on the market or she'll sue her for criminal negligence. Ben's character is similarly inconsistent. Even though he doesn't get that his wife sees Moira as a middle-aged woman, is he that much of a horndog that he wouldn't insist they find new help? Some painful soap opera moments almost scuttle the first episode. There's an overheated scene in which Ben and Vivien hurl accusations at each other about their marital problems that is so phony, even the actors don't seem to believe it. Nothing trumps scary as much as silly does and it takes a few minutes for "American Horror Story" to recover. The series finds more of its focus by the second episode, however, so much so that we start to wonder why the Harmons haven't figured out that they've gotten more than a fixer-upper in their new home. All of that is revealed, as well as some of the personal histories of Moira and Constance, in the third episode, which is not only the best of the bunch, but is when the series finally finds its dramatic footing, not to mention the balance between psychological terror and real horror.