Tuned In: FX's interesting 'American Horror Story' proves a bit confusing

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Perhaps the most succinct, accurate review of "American Horror Story" is this one from a fellow TV critic after a screening this summer: "It's a hot mess."

This week's "American Horror Story" pilot is a nonsensical roller coaster ride that will confuse, astound and surprise viewers. You may not come away knowing whether you like it, but you won't be bored.

Written by "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck" executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who clearly are tacking more toward their "Nip/Tuck" baser instincts with this program, "American Horror Story" offers an overstuffed introduction to a family that moves into a haunted, Victorian home in Los Angeles.

Vivien (Connie Britton, "Friday Night Lights") and Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott, "The Practice") have been through some bad times. She had a miscarriage; he cheated. So they pull up stakes from their East Coast home and travel west with daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who likes to cut herself. The family moves into a 1920s-era Los Angeles home that viewers have already seen in a flashback to 1978. The house appears to be haunted by an elderly baby wearing a muumuu.

Once there, Ben, a psychiatrist, begins seeing patients in his home office, including teenager Tate (Evan Peters), who has daydreams of shooting up his school. Potentially crazier characters begin popping up, including a man with half a face (Denis O'Hare, "True Blood") spotted lurking outside; and a maid who has worked in the house for years who appears older (Frances Conroy, "Six Feet Under") to Vivien and younger (Alexandra Brackenridge) to Ben.

The most entertaining interloper is neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange), a grand dame with Southern roots, who swans into the home chasing her developmentally disabled daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who is fond of telling anyone living in the Harmon house, "You're going to die in there," which it appears they often do. The home's previous owners were a gay couple who died in a murder-suicide. (Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto will play one half of the couple in upcoming episodes.)

Constance, who uncharitably refers to her daughter as "the mongoloid," constantly wanders into the Harmon house and sometimes turns threatening.

In addition to his writing duties, Mr. Murphy also directed the "AHS" pilot, which feels more like a succession of loosely-connected scenes than it does a whole story. At times, viewers don't know where they are - the first scene of Vivien in her East Coast home has no establishing shot and it comes after a flashback in the L.A. house. It's unclear if this lack of clarity is an intentional effort to confuse or just sloppy filmmaking.

Ms. Britton and Mr. McDermott get one particularly intense knock-down, drag-out fight scene in the pilot. The scene gives Ms. Britton an opportunity to show some new sides rather than her more grounded "Friday Night Lights" character. Mr. McDermott's scowling and yelling will be familiar to fans of "The Practice."

"American Horror Story" grows increasingly bizarre as it wears on - Did I mention Vivien finds a rubber gimp suit in the attic? - with many lingering shots of Mr. McDermott's bare backside as he wanders the house nude.

What's not clear from the pilot is if there's a compelling story underlying the show or if it's simply provocative for its own sake. This week's premiere raises many questions and at press time FX had no additional episodes available for review.

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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