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Posted at 04:51 PM ET, 12/21/2011

‘American Horror Story’: As we prepare for the season finale, we ask: Is this show good?


Jessica Lange as Constance: pausing to ponder the madness that has been season one of “American Horror Story.” (FX)

Read the recap of the season finale

After 11 episodes that contained multiple murders; two rapes; numerous allusions to pigs and pig body parts; the introduction of (by Vulture’s count) 24 ghosts; the use of such medical terms as “heteropaternal superfecundation” (real) and “intrauterine omphagia” (less real); and an attempt on Celebritology’s part to answer 106 questions (so far) about all of these matters and more, the first season of “American Horror Story” comes to a close tonight.

As Paul Williams and I gear up for one final, pre-Christmas “American Horror” Q&A — one in which we desperately hope to finally understand such important matters as, “Seriously, do we know what Ben’s deal is?” and “Where the heck is Vivien’s dog?” (hat tip to reader eunicedelrosario for raising that one in last week’s comments) — we have another question to answer first. It’s a pretty basic one: Is this show any good?

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Paul and I were at a work function last week when a colleague asked us that very thing: “So, is ‘American Horror Story’ any good?”

Initially, we were at a loss for words. After writing a still-untallied number of words about the Black Dahlia, Croatoa and Larry Harvey’s, uh, burning desire to secure $1,000 for head shots, we don’t always pause to deeply analyze the quality of what we are watching.

The fact that we hesitated to answer that question at all, though, may be less a commentary on “American Horror Story’s” level of excellence — and it is pretty excellent, for reasons I will address momentarily — than it is on TV snobbism. Most of us would not hesitate to declare that a drama like “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland” or “Mad Men” is a “good” show because television has become so “good” over the past decade or so that our definition of that word has elevated to a new level.

“Good” show now means a program worthy of a senior thesis, an academic summit and/or extensive online analysis that delves into said “good show’s” literary, religious and political themes.

I’m still not sure whether “American Horror Story” falls into that category. As Paul rightly noted today in an e-mail exchange: “I think the one thing holding it back from being a ‘great’ show is that it doesn’t have the depth of mythology that a show like ‘Lost’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ did.”

Very true. We need at least another season to see whether Ryan Murphy and co. can continue to develop it in that direction. But here’s where “American Horror Story” succeeds, and why I think it really is a good show.

It raises multiple mysteries, but solves enough of them to stem frustration.

Yes, a lot of implausible, rubber-suited wackiness happens on this show. If it were possible to petition for a TV show to be involuntarily committed, I think one could successfully do that with “American Horror Story.”

But to its credit, it has answered a lot of questions (spoilers ahead) — Tate is dead; his mother is Constance; Violet is also now dead; Vivien’s babies were indeed fathered by two different men, one of whom was Tate in the rubber suit — even as it continues to keep some dangling unresolved.

Did I mention “American Horror Story” is totally cuckoo?

But it’s cuckoo in such a delightfully, no-holds-barred way that it’s almost impossible not to embrace it. Comparisons to “Twin Peaks” have been made. While I think the Agent Cooper Hour was more controlled and cinematic than “American Horror Story,” I have to admit that I haven’t cackled this hard at the brazen behavior of a bunch of eccentrics since I tittered at Leland Palmer for singing “Mairzy Doats.”

The acting is excellent.

What grounds this show is the consistently fine work of its actors, who play the truth of each scene even when the truth means having a conversation with someone you shot in the eyeball 30 years ago. Jessica Lange isn’t merely a character out of a Southern Gothic story; she’s the entire collected works of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell, plus the cast of “Steel Magnolias,” all in one woman. Taissa Farmiga has delivered one of the most authentic and against-all-odds empathetic portrayals of a teenager in recent television memory. And the always reliable Connie Britton has been reliably fabulous, in a way that’s vastly different from Tami Taylor of “Friday Night Lights.” And I haven’t even talked about Dylan McDermott, or Denis O’Hare, or heartthrob Evan Peters yet.

It is addictive.

At the end of every episode, fans are eager to revisit what they’ve seen and to figure out what’s going to happen next. And that might be the most basic mark of a good show.

That also might be the hardest thing to handle about tonight’s finale — we face months of waiting before season two begins sometime next year.

Those who have been taking this decidedly odd Murder House ride will undoubtedly wonder how Murphy can possibly re-create the same atmosphere and flagrantly bizarre twists over another run of 12 or 13 episodes. We won’t know, really, until season two gets underway whether “American Horror Story” has earned a permanent spot on the “good TV shows” list. But at this stage, it seems fair to say that season one of “American Horror Story” has been both good in a truly good way, as well as a way that sometimes renders one speechless.

By  |  04:51 PM ET, 12/21/2011

Tags:  American Horror Story

 
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