While being lightly pummeled by the freaky sex and sadistic violence of American Horror Story (FX, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), you may start wondering if the Bernard Herrmann Estate is preparing legal action against parties including, but not limited to, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, music editor David Klotz, and media conglomerate News Corp. At every plausible moment—and a few implausible ones—its soundtrack rips with violins heavily indebted to Herrmann's score for the scene where Norman Bates surprises Marion Crane in the shower.* With its grindhouse canted angles, giallo gore, and a trickle of piano recalling The Exorcist's "Tubular Bells," American Horror Story has openly thieved from every horror-flick trick in the book. Considering the show's slasher-film streak, its kitsch-kink bent, and its loony riffs on madness, this hypothetical book would be a hybrid of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide and the DSM-IV.
You could call it The Joy of Overcooking. The producers are the guys behind the karaoke fantasia of Glee and the garish nastiness of Nip/Tuck. No strangers to camp, they are trying a deliberately heavy hand at a psychosexual thriller. Let's put it this way: Jessica Lange, playing the battily malicious neighbor of a troubled California family, is wiggier than she ever has been. Remember that this is a woman who's been Blanche Dubois, Big Edie, and Frances Farmer.
Dylan McDermott plays a shrink named Ben Harmon, which, according to the rules of the genre, means that his work is driving him crazy and that his life is inharmonious.* Ben and his family have moved out of Boston not to escape Red Sox fans but rather because he was cheating on his wife, and they are attempting a fresh start in Los Angeles. The city looks more grim than golden, and things are more "Hell-ay" than usual. As one of Ben's patients tells him, "Dude, you're on the murder-house tour." Psycho killers have done some psycho-killing in the Harmon's creepy old new house.
It follows that Ben is tense and nervous, and he can't relax. Sometimes McDermott underacts (as when Ben embraces his wife and we see what she can't: the more dubious of this two-faced guy's two faces). Sometimes McDermott overacts (as when, during a jog, he pantingly pounds his feet, trying to outrun the twisted visions that the show keeps hurtling at his mind's eye). But then sometimes, every now and then, he just acts (as the excesses of bloody dream sequences and shuddering sexual tension allow).
Noting that the actress Connie Britton plays Ben's Vivien, who is pregnant again after a stillbirth, you realize that the guy really must be crazy as no one in his right mind would cheat on Connie Britton. Hasn't he seen Friday Night Lights? As FNL's Tami Taylor, Britton inspired a rare sort of lustful reverence, and it is hard to tell how good her performance as Vivien is, so distracting is her aura.
Taissa Farmiga plays the Harmons' daughter, Violet. She's quite convincing as the sort of ambitious teenager who, unlike the myriad high-school girls content to be passive-aggressive with their parents, doggedly aspires to aggressive-aggression.
I hesitate to say that American Horror Story is a slick machine engineered to deliver cheap shocks of sensation. No, its shocks of sensation come at a higher price point, what with the show's midmarket marital conflict and especially its extravagant perviness. This show's got more sexy-uniform costumes than the stockroom at Ricky's. A killer who came to the house in the late '60s had a naughty-nurse problem, and Ben, either hallucinating or tuning into paranormal vibes, always looks at a dowdy old maid and sees a frisky young chickadee in her place. All the while, Lange oozes around as a whack job of a wacky neighbor. You're waiting for her to kill someone with poisonous false perkiness.
So far, American Horror Story isn't the great American horror story but rather a pretty good fright night. The title carries more weight than its content can bear. I am reminded of Joyce Carol Oates' review of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife: "Is there a distinctly American experience? The American, by Henry James; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Quiet American, by Graham Greene; The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth's American Pastoral; and Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho—each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections.... 'American' is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which 'good' and 'evil' are mysteriously conjoined."
Don't trouble yourself too much with all that. This gourmet junk food gives you some pure evil, and it takes some axes to some evildoers, and the American type represented has a predilection for French maids. Bon appetit.
Update, Oct. 7, 2011: The makers of American Horror Story have written Slate to say that the show is in fact licensing music from the Bernard Herrmann Estate. We regret suggesting that they are thieves when they come by their derivative style so very honestly. (Return.)
Correction, Oct. 4, 2011: This article originally misidentified the actor who plays Ben Harmon as Dermot Mulroney. (Return to the corrected sentence.)