Viewers will already be suffering buyer’s remorse because “American Horror Story” coldly opens with a prologue set 37 years earlier, when mischievous twin brothers disobey the sober warnings of the little clairvoyant mentally disabled neighbor girl and sneak into the then-dilapidated house. Quickly enough, one of the boys has his throat slit, and the other is dragged to his doom by a creature that lives in the basement.
By the second episode, we begin to learn of many murders and tragic deaths that have occurred in the house over the decades, from its earliest days as a demented doctor’s laboratory (the place looks like a Joel-Peter Witkin photo retrospective of sanitarium creepiness) to a pair of Richard Speck-style nurse slayings in the 1960s to the time a married father doused his sleeping family in gasoline and incinerated them.
The most recent tenants were fussy gay men who brought the house up to high-yuppie code but didn’t survive to enjoy it. Though Ben and Vivien’s real-estate agent has been somewhat forthcoming about the latest unpleasantness, the house works its charms on the couple. It must be the kitchen, which is really quite the shelter magazine showpiece.
But it’s not that nice. Enough happens in this first episode that you’ll grow hoarse from shouting “JUST MOVE OUT!!” every few minutes. “American Horror Story” is relentless about being relentless, and like Murphy and Falchuk’s “Glee” and “Nip/Tuck,” it gets so excited about itself that it practically bursts into bits before it even begins.
Poor Britton — what a great part for her, but what a jarring transition from her last series, the heartfelt “Friday Night Lights.” Murphy and Falchuk get a sadistic kick out of creating potential peril for the Harmons, almost as if their only aim is to produce a show called “Let’s Torment Connie Britton.” She handles it with aplomb. McDermott is a tad wooden as Ben, a handsomely self-absorbed shrink who uses the house’s front parlor to counsel his patients. Ben’s deeply sorry about cheating on Vivien, but he also can’t stop thinking about sex with other women.
In one of the show’s most inventive twists, Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) shares the role of Moira, the housekeeper, with a much younger Alexandra Breckinridge. Mysterious Moira shows up and offers her services to the Harmons, claiming to have been a maid in the house for years for other owners. When Vivien sees Moira, she sees Conroy, who appears old and reservedly kempt, with one eye clouded by a cataract. But when Ben sees Moira, he sees Breckinridge’s version, a sexpot in a scanty French maid’s outfit. It’s torture for narcissistic Ben.