If your nerves are up for it, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s “American Horror Story” is without doubt the most visually arresting and twisted new television show of the year. Premiering on FX on Wednesday night, it’s about Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton), a couple in their 40s who relocate from Boston to Los Angeles with their glum teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga).
The family wants a fresh start, but not like this. Ben and Vivien are trying to salvage their testy marriage after she caught him having sex with a younger woman. What could be more curative than a stunningly restored (alas, demonically occupied) 1920s manse in a vintage L.A. neighborhood.
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.
Dennis O’Hare (“True Blood’s” Russell Edgington) plays Larry Harvey, a half-burned prison parolee who stalks Ben on his daily jogs and implores him to move out of the house before something bad happens. Ben refuses, even after Larry tells him how the house’s spirits caused him to set his wife and children on fire, a blaze that left him disfigured.
“This is not about the house!” Ben yells at Larry. “This is about me. What I did. I cheated on my wife.”
The teenager, Violet, is enrolled at yet another iteration of Ryan Murphy High School, where cruelty and criminality in the hallways supplant the curriculum. She falls for a Cobainesque teenage boy, Tate (Evan Peters), who is being treated by her father for his borderline schizophrenia. The weird voices in Tate’s head just love what’s going on in the house’s basement.
And I haven’t even told you yet about “American Horror Story’s” campiest treat of all: Jessica Lange as the drippingly genteel next-door neighbor, Constance, who breezes in and out of the Harmons’ kitchen as if she owns the place — a sinister Blanche Dubois bearing ipecac-laced cupcakes along with poisonous bons mots. Constance is the mother of the Down syndrome child from the prologue, Addie (Jamie Brewer, in the adult version), who seems to know all of the house’s secrets.
Addie also keeps sneaking into the Harmons’ house, mainly to play with the unseen monster in the basement. “I think I’m going to have to start strapping her in at night again,” Constance says, deciding instead to lock Addie (whom she refers to as “the mongoloid”) in a closet filled with mirrors, where the young woman screams at the sight of her own face.
Yes, abusing the mentally disabled. “American Horror Story” tries to make its most despicable moments feel like a ride through a carnival spook house, with varying success. At its shriveled, scorchy heart, the show’s nightmarish narrative is also an act of satire, a broad commentary on familial dysfunction.
At least that seems to be the subtextual intent. It is about infidelity; it is about the false balm offered by fabulous real estate. And it readily accesses a nostalgic 1960s and ’70s goose bumps vibe inspired by “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Last House on the Left” and “Dark Shadows.” If nothing else, “American Horror Story’s” opening credits — a montage of medical mysteries and bubbly burns of celluloid film — are a stylistic triumph. (Even the font choice is perfectly terrifying.)
Yet in honoring such fare, Murphy and Falchuk are also attuned to the intensity of modern-day horror of the sort seen in “Paranormal Activity” and other recent films. The idea is to make “American Horror Story” as chilling and naughty as it can be without murdering the metaphor.
But the metaphor gets bludgeoned anyhow. The first episode is so crammed with ghouls and gross-outs that some viewers will squeal with delight while others wonder whether they can possibly tune in for this sort of fright every week. That’s certainly my lingering criticism of “American Horror Story”: I’m supposed to come back for more? And more? (Without a prescription for anti-anxiety pills?)
In next week’s episode, after a harrowing break-in by a trio of Manson family wannabes, Vivien announces she’s ready to move. Yeah, right. You get the awful feeling that this is another one of those “Hotel California” situations. The Harmons can check out any time they like, but they can never leave.
(one hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.