Posts Tagged ‘american horror story’

Summary of “American Horror Story”

December 1, 2020

I came in wanting to like this series.  I really did.  But if you read my thoughts on the specific shows you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I really, really didn’t.  There are a number of reasons for this, as outlined in the original comments, but let me summarize the overall issues here.

Since I promised to talk about the sexual content here in a previous post, let me get that out of the way right off the top.  I’m not opposed to sexual content in a show.  In fact, sometimes I’ll even enjoy it.  But this series really doesn’t use it well.  In a general drama, you’d expect it to be used either for cheap fanservice or, in more advanced dramas, to say something about the character.  But mostly it shows up as a minor distraction from the main action that can provide the climax (ahem) to relationship points.  Those sorts of dramas in general don’t try to do sex for the sake of doing sex.  That’s reserved for softcore porn like, well, most of what Kari Wuhrer did early on in her career (also see Krista Allen).

“American Horror Story”, in general, seems to be trying to do serious drama.  But it also seems to be shoehorning lots of sex scenes and sexual situations into the show, often highlighting relatively kinky forms of sex.  And then it seems to try to tie that into the drama and the horror.  And, at least for me, it fails miserably to do that, so the sex scenes really seem to be there just to have sex scenes, despite the show seemingly trying to pretend that that’s not what it’s doing.  And this isn’t helped by the fact that often they seem to be there to provide little more than a way to show that the aging female stars are still supposed to be seen as sexy, or else to highlight gay sex — usually lesbian but sometimes male-male — as well.  Thus, the scenes come across as artificial and don’t seem to actually add anything to the show.  Thus, they could be excised without losing anything, and so often seem to take up space that could have been used to develop the plots or characters more.  Thus, they come across as being there just for the sake of being there.  And, again, doing a little bit of fanservice isn’t offensive to me (I mean, I did watch the entire run of “Pretty Little Liars”, which had tamer scenes but still had some).  I’ve heard that “Game of Thrones” was equally filled with sexual content, so this may well be what modern writers think is “edgy” now that they can get their shows onto services and channels where they don’t really need to worry about ratings and the like.  This makes them look more like horny teenagers than good writers, though.  That you can do nudity doesn’t mean that you should just do it, but that you should use it when it’s most effective.  I don’t feel that the nudity and sexual content was used at all effectively.

Which leads to the big flaw in the series for me:  it wasted an excellent set-up.  As I noted at the beginning, the best thing about the individual season set-up with the ensemble cast is that you didn’t have to set anything up for later seasons since they were supposed to be distinct.  This meant that they could focus on telling a single, complete story that could do anything it wanted to those characters and setting because they wouldn’t have to continue it the next season.  And instead of being focused, overall every story ended up being muddled and overstuffed with mostly unrelated stories.  They weren’t A-plots with some B-plots to provide distractions when we needed time to set things up for the A-plots, but instead seemed to be a muddle of various plots of more or less importance that were more or less related to what looked, at least, like the A-plots.  So we couldn’t simply set them aside since they did things to advance the purported A-plots, but they weren’t important or developed enough to really link properly to those A-plots.  Ultimately, they got too much attention to just be asides, but not enough to stand on their own as something interesting, but were too tied to the main plot to be mostly ignored.  And so my overall impression was that the seasons were always overstuffed with things happening.  Again, I can compare it to “Pretty Little Liars” — which I’m actually rewatching as noise while working right now — and note that they had one overarching — and, yes, convoluted — main plot and then used all the individual circumstances as a break from the main plot and as a means to generate secrets and threats for the main plot, integrating them better into the main plot but also making them unimportant enough so that they could easily get out of the way when the main plot had to take over.  That never seemed to be the case for “American Horror Story”.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the only season I liked was the one where the format itself forced them to actually focus on one set of plots.  And they didn’t even really stick that.

The show also seemed to focus too much on unsympathetic characters that were at best secondary villains, especially the ones played by their headliners.  They seemed to want us to care about them and even at times consider them tragic, even when they weren’t sympathetic and didn’t even seem tragic.  The problem was that often their storylines took up a lot of screentime that would have been better served focusing on the more main characters, and the ones that actually were sympathetic.  So because it was the big names it looks like it was either the writers or the actresses or both trying to get meaty roles and lots of screentime for them rather than something driven by the needs of the plot.  And that wouldn’t make me inclined to like it, even if those were my favourite actresses.  And they weren’t (I didn’t dislike them, but they were not ones that I’d look at and say “Wow, they’re in it!”  The closest was Emma Roberts, and I think they shafted her in both of her seasons).

So, if the writing is as bad as I say it is, how come it’s so popular?  I’ll go into this a bit more when I talk about a better work — “The Haunting of Hill House” — but what I will say is that they get a number of pretty good actors and actresses who give pretty good performances, and the production values are pretty slick.  That puts it above a lot of other stuff that you see, which will probably impress a number of people.  It also seems to tie into a lot of the Social Justice points, and some people will really like that.  That doesn’t forgive its actual flaws, though.

In case people haven’t guessed already, I’m not going to watch this series again.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Roanoke”

November 24, 2020

Roanoke is the last of the “American Horror Story” seasons that was cheap when I found them in Walmart (the next season was still new and so was still full price), and so is the last of the ones I bought to give them a try.  As you might imagine from reading my comments on the other ones so far, I was not inclined after watching them to continue the series.  I was content to let them continue on as they see fit while I studiously ignored them.

Why did the last one have to be one that I actually enjoyed?

The main reason for this is the premise.  Essentially, they focused on a Blair Witch/Ghost Documentary type of idea, where the first half of the season describes a horrific haunting that the main characters undergo, while the second half is them returning there in a quest for higher ratings where things, well, go to hell yet again.  This premise, however, forces them to do what I wanted them to do from the beginning:  focus on telling one really, really good story.  While they do add in some distractions — of course — the documentary format forces them to stay focused because such shows wouldn’t drift as much as the previous seasons have.  This greatly added to my enjoyment of the show and, in fact, seems to be a great improvement. The documentary format allows for thrills and chills and all the good stuff while focusing on character and plot development, since again that’s how those shows work.  Ultimately, by adopting the oft-despised reality show/ghost hunter format, they end up producing a better horror story.

This is not to say that there aren’t issues.  Again, the series tends to focus overmuch on their most prominent headlining star.  Here, that’s Sarah Paulson, who was with the show from pretty much the start and so steps into the spot left by Jessica Lange and Lady Gaga of being effectively the lead (she was also arguably the lead in “Asylum” and “Freakshow”, but was overshadowed by Jessica Lange).  Here, she plays the actress playing the wife while Lily Rabe plays the real-life wife.  The problem is that while Sarah Paulson is fairly attractive, Lily Rabe looks a lot more like the sort of actress an exploitative horror show would cast.  So this kept distracting me when they hopped from the interviews with Lily Rabe to the actual re-enacted scenes with Sarah Paulson, which made it distracting.

They also played around a bit with Kathy Bates’ character, who is the undead leader of the Roanoke colonists who are trying to kill everyone.  The character is not all that interesting, being for the most part a one-note killer with no real redeeming qualities.  In the second part, they have the actress — which is who Kathy Bates actually plays — become obsessed with the show and the character, and they drop the lampshade that for some reason people really liked the evil characters more than anyone else.  This might well have been true for the series — I haven’t researched it to find out — but it was incredibly risky to claim that by claiming that that character was so beloved, because if the audience didn’t agree then it would fall flat … which it did for me (although I’ve never been as impressed with their villains as the show was).  They could easily have played that up beforehand if they wanted to wink at the audience and then simply had the actress become obsessed by the character herself, even hinting at some actual corruption from the area itself.  They needed to hint at that anyway, and putting the wink in earlier would have avoided the risk of the audience not agreeing with them about that specific character.

They also again make the mistake of trying to make us feel sympathetic towards an unsympathetic character, which is mindboggling since they seem to have no clue how they always manage to sabotage their own events.  Here, the character is the sister of the husband, who lost her marriage to her being addicted to painkillers and who also because of that lost custody of her daughter to her husband.  The show is pretty clear that she did this all to herself and it is her own mistakes that led to all of this, and she even admits that on occasion.  But they end up with one of the mysteries being who killed her husband, with her being the main suspect.  It turns out that, yes, she did indeed kill her husband because he was going to get visitation denied because she let their daughter stay in a creepy house where she was in great danger.  Now, the show tries to set him up as being abusive, but never really pulls that off, and there is no reason to think that he was abusing the child, and he certainly wasn’t physically or mentally abusing her when she killed him, so that doesn’t justify her actions.  So she ends up murdering the father of her child that her child loved and lies about it for years before admitting it.

And it gets worse.  She goes on trial for murder, and it turns out that her daughter actually saw her kill her father.  The daughter then testifies at the trial — and it’s clear has been avoiding her mother because she saw her mother kill her father — and the mother is implied to tell her lawyer about the weird things the daughter did at around the same time at the house so that her testimony will be discredited.  It works, and the mother gets off, and then is devastated that her daughter wants nothing to do with her after she basically set the daughter up to be considered crazy.  While I’m willing to accept that she does love her daughter, she really does seem to love herself more.  This weakens the ending where she offers to die and fight the spirit of the colony leader to keep her from destroying a ghost girl in her daughter’s place.  I don’t find it entirely unreasonable, but don’t really care about the character to find that sacrifice all that emotionally satisfying.

And this was so easy to fix!  All you needed to do was make it clear that the mother was telling the lawyer to not use the ghost stories against the daughter and that the lawyer did it anyway.  While I don’t think that making the husband more abusive would work — as that would be making an entirely different point about how stupid the system is or unjust it is — I do think that making the murder more accidental or even making her innocent of it would have worked.  Instead, they made her come across as completely self-interested — she risks the lives of everyone at the end to retrieve the evidence that she killed her husband — and then expected us to care about her.  We don’t generally care that much about people who are clearly only interested in themselves.

But aside from all of that, this is the only season that I’ve watched that I could actually watch again, and it’s separate enough from the other seasons that I could indeed just watch it.  Ultimately, though, I think that I’ll put it with the others.  I have better things to watch than this one decent season of American Horror Story.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Hotel”

November 17, 2020

Jessica Lange doesn’t appear in this season, and so they need to replace her as the headliner.  This season, she is replaced by Lady Gaga, which at least means that the heavily sexualized storyline that that character has makes a bit more sense.  And before people insist that my entire problem with the previous ones was that they had an older woman being sexual instead of a younger one, I have two responses.  First, I’ll talk more about the sexual content overall when I summarize the series at the end.  Second, while I’m not opposed to older women having sex and Jessica Lange is not unattractive, most of those roles rely on the character being seductive, and since this one is based on vampires it’s even more so.  That an older woman would have sex isn’t all that odd, but being not only generally attractive to pretty much anyone involved but also being mostly irresistible requires a bit more generic sex appeal.  Lady Gaga is attractive enough, at least for the most part, to pull that off.

But the main issue with the entire series really rears its head here.  As you might guess from the title, this season is set in a haunted hotel.  What it most reminded me of was the Hyperion Hotel segment from “Angel”, which worked really well for the one episode where it was the main story and is an idea that could easily be expanded into something really great.  The season in fact uses the song “Hotel California” at one point and having a bunch of lost souls there could have produced a wonderful season.  Instead, the season, as per normal for this series, packs in vampires, serial killers, ghosts, a transgender/transvestite man trying to reunite with his family, drugs, and all sorts of other things into one very, very loosely related set of stories.  As usual, the stories are too intertwined to be taken as separate but too separate to play off of each other effectively.

This isn’t helped by the fact that, again, the characters that are focused on aren’t exactly sympathetic.  Lady Gaga’s head vampire is, as usual, the headliner and for some reason it seems like we’re supposed to find her sympathetic — she even gets an at least neutral ending — but she really is a selfish monster.  In fact, part of the story pits her and her rival vampire against each other and it isn’t clear who the story wants us to cheer for.  Her “death” is portrayed not as justice, but as tragic.  And it doesn’t help that the vampire storyline is inconsistent and ridiculous.  At the start, they seem to have no fear of weapons, but at the end they are killed by, to be fair, a hail of bullets.  The characters in the arc aren’t sympathetic, and the vampires are just different enough from ours to make things unclear and confusing since we don’t understand the new rules and the show seems to assume that we either will understand them or else we won’t care.  Ultimately, I found this storyline rather uninteresting.

The woman behind the desk — played by Kathy Bates — could be a sympathetic character, but she was perfectly willing to go along with helping the main vampire torture and kill people and was thoroughly unpleasant.  We could have seen her taking out the head vampire — along with the transgender character — as being a badass moment of redemption for them … but they are still unpleasant and have done nothing to actually be redeemed.  And for someone who had in general a minor impact on the plot, the character is focused on a lot.  If she had been used as more of a viewpoint character, accepting the strangeness and just doing her job until the climax, this would have worked better.  But that’s not what happened.

The big problem, though, is with the detective plot, which by presentation should be the main plot except that, as usual, the season overshadows it with the plot that features their headliner.  A detective moves into the hotel to pursue a serial killer who taunted him from there.  As things go along, he seems to get more disturbed and even deranged, but we never actually see that happen.  All that happens is that we seem him looking more tired and less shaven.  The show hints that he’s obsessing over the case and that’s what’s causing his mental breakdown, but the show never actually shows that to us.  We see an evidence board sometimes, but he never really spends any time focusing on it, so we don’t really get to see the descent into madness that the show is implying that he had.

These problems continue into the main twist.  The killer is the Ten Commandments Killer, who is killing people in indicative ways who have broken the Ten Commandments.  What we eventually discover is that a serial killer who owned and died in the hotel was the original killer, but the twist is that the detective has taken over and is completing his work.  Why?  We don’t know.  The series implies that the reason he turned to it was an obsession with seeing justice done, but again that’s never really established as being part of his character.  And we don’t get anything else, and never really discover when he took it up or why.  The time spent on the arc suggests that it’s a if not the main arc of the season, but the development it gets is too shallow to pull that off.

Which really hurts the ending, as there are two main emotional events associated with it.  The first is the one I just outlined.  The second is that his son had disappeared and his wife, at least, was having trouble with that.  It turns out that the son was taken by the head vampire and turned into a vampire.  The wife finds this out and gets turned into a vampire herself (and does an incredibly stupid thing that causes a bunch of child vampires that need to be taken out and, worse, take time away from actually developing the arcs).  The detective in some ways was trying to kill people to bring them blood once he finds all this out, but he ends up being killed by the police and, worse, can’t die on the hotel grounds and so can’t stay in the hotel forever.  He ends up being able to come back once a year when the hotel owner has a dinner for serial killers, and so he ends up spending the night with his wife and son who will never age, and his daughter who does.  I will say that the scene itself is fairly effective, but it lacks the emotional charge it should have because, again, I don’t know enough about these characters to care about them.  The lack of development pretty much kills off the entire arc.

This season also made more links to previous seasons.  Neither of them work.  The first is that they bring back the voodoo witch from Coven, only to kill her off so that the rival vampire can drink her blood and get superpowered up to take on the head vampire.  If you didn’t like that character, you might be okay with her dying, but won’t care that they brought her back.  If you did like the character, you won’t be happy that her end is essentially as a power up for a relatively minor confrontation in this story.  On top of that, we know that the coven still existed and was still powerful — she notes that the Supreme magicked her ticket so that she’d get on stage on “The Price is Right” — and so the fact that she went there and was killed really should have garnered some kind of response.  Witches don’t really have power over ghosts, but with all of their abilities they could at least burn the entire hotel down, and we know they had clairvoyant abilities in a number of ways and so would find out.  But this is ignored, which makes her inclusion all the more perfunctory.

The other character is I believe a medium from “Murder House”, but again her inclusion is only to the detriment of the character if you actually cared about it.  She’s trying to expose the ghosts in the hotel and ends up being threatened by all the serial killers to stop doing it or else she’ll be killed.  This wasn’t at all necessary and again only serves as a disservice to the character if you liked her, and if you didn’t then you won’t care that she showed up.  In trying to create the shared universe, they end up, it seems sacrificing characters for no real gain.

If I want to watch horror hi-jinks around a hotel, I’ll just watch “Angel” again, and not this.  It squanders the opportunity it had and the great atmosphere that old hotels can give with too many muddled plots and arcs that, ultimately, don’t generate the emotions that they were trying to generate.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Freakshow”

November 10, 2020

I will say that the fourth season of American Horror Story is indeed a bit better than the third, but that’s a pretty low bar.  Ultimately, the season suffers from the same problems as the previous ones and even seems to double down on the idea of trying to make us feel sympathetic for unsympathetic characters, which doesn’t work all that well.

As usual, this starts with Jessica Lange’s character, who is essentially the main character (other than Kathy Bates’ bearded lady) and the one that gets a lot of the focus.  Also as usual, she’s given a sexual oriented background and is played for sex appeal a fair bit, which always strikes me as being a bit more than was necessary.  But the big issue here is that she’s the one running the Freakshow, and she talks a lot about caring for her freaks, but from the start she seems more interested in ensuring that she is the headliner as a way to return to making “normal” movies again (despite her herself having prosthetic legs from a sexual misadventure in Wiemar/Nazi Germany, where she had entered into the world of pornography which ended with her being in what is essentially a snuff film).  She gets very jealous of the two-headed lady when it looks like she’ll be more popular a performer and ruin her chance at that.  Later, we find out that the main reason she joined a freak show in the first place was just to escape and to hide from those who might want to kill her, and also because she saw that as indeed the best way to get attention for her to return to the spotlight she craved.  When she finally does achieve that return, she refuses the offer from the freaks to buy the show from her, preferring to sell it to someone who presumably will give her more money but who it’s clear won’t treat the freaks all that well.  It’s only an equivalent or better offer from someone else that gets her to sell it to someone who might actually care about the show.  So throughout the season, her character seems to be paying lip service to caring about the freaks but seems to have a real goal of getting away from them as quickly as she can.

And yet, at the end she seems to have to come to face with the enigmatic freak show character who is some kind of powerful spirit, to essentially claim her soul.  In doing so, she returns to the freak show with the freaks that died in the season, and this seems to be essentially heaven for her.  She’s happy there.  So not only did she get to live out her dream for a number of years, when it comes time to pay the piper she actually gets what she seems to think is a perfect ending (even though that’s inconsistent with her character).  But this is a character that, again, seemed completely self-interested and self-serving, killed off more sympathetic characters, was petty towards the two-headed lady and basically is someone that everyone believed would step over everyone in the freak show if it would get her to Hollywood.  She doesn’t deserve to fulfill her dreams and die in what she seems to consider at least a reasonable facsimile of heaven.  And yet the show ensures that we know that she got that.  It, at least for me, casts a real pall over the ending for a character like that to get such a happy ending when other, more sympathetic characters, didn’t.

There’s also another big failure here.  Last time,  I noted that they wasted a wonderful redemption plot with Emma Roberts’ character.  You could reasonably have argued that that was just my expressing a personal interest or opinion, because other than making her a rape victim early the show didn’t really do anything to make us think that she could be redeemed or wanted to be, and so it didn’t really have a redemption arc at all.  That would be fair, but to be fair to me I also commented about how pulling that off would have made things better.  But, sure, they weren’t trying for a redemption arc so I can’t say that they failed to pull off a redemption arc in that season.  They didn’t really have a redemption arc and its components in the show, so it is indeed more my criticizing them for not putting one in since they had a good setup for it rather than criticizing them for creating one and not following through with it.

But here, they really did put together the elements of this with Emma Roberts’s character.  She starts as the assistant to a hustler who is trying to acquire bodies and body parts of freaks to sell to a freak museum because they can make a fortune doing that.  The plan they have is to infiltrate the freak show and find a way to get ahold of bodies.  As things progress, she is rescued by the son of the bearded lady who has lobster hands from a serial killer, and seems to start to have feelings for him.  Since they aren’t getting their hands on bodies, the huckster decides to try to take them directly, and asks her to seduce the son into that.  She doesn’t want to do that, and so she suggests taking the small, childlike freak instead.  The huckster tells her to bring her to a place where they can kill and bottle her, and when she does the huckster isn’t there and so she has to do that herself … and she can’t, so she returns the freak to the show, betraying her benefactor.  He ends up blackmailing someone else into doing it, and then uses other means to get the son’s hands.

As that progresses, she finally decides to tell one of the others about what was going on, and takes her to the museum to show her what was happening.  Once there, she finds his hands, and faints when she sees it.  At this point, they all know about her involvement, but she is profusely apologetic and seems to be legitimately in love with the son, as she attempts to nurse him back to health and insists that she will make all of this up to them.  We also find out that she only took up with the huckster because she was living on the streets and had skills he could use, so he promised to take care of her and get more money for her.  So far, then, we have a character who didn’t care about the freaks at all when coming in but came to care both about them and to legitimately fall in love with the son, who refused to participate in the evil schemes and ultimately was responsible for them finding out about them, and when ostracized promised to make it up to them in some way.  This sounds pretty much like a redemption arc to me.

And then the show destroys it all at the end.

The new owner is obsessed with magic tricks, and is also seriously deranged.  After being rejected by the two-headed lady, we find out that he killed his former wife and her lover — it’s complicated — and he completely loses it.  He tries to practice his trick and she volunteers to be in it … and he locks it so that she can’t pull her legs in and is actually sawed in half, and killed.  This would be bad enough, but then one of the other less than sympathetic characters — the three-breasted woman — essentially says that she deserved it and the last words she says about her is that they should take her jewelry and dump the body.  So not only is she killed in a very anti-climactic way, not only does her murder not get justice — he confesses to killing his puppet, not her — and not only does she not redeem herself, at the end she’s simply dismissed and tossed out as garbage.  And the show still expects us to think that the callow character who pushed for that is sympathetic — like the first character, she gets a happy ending — despite being cruel and callous to someone who was working to help them and redeem herself and so didn’t deserve it.  The show set up a redemption arc and then completely tossed that out at the end.

Now, you can subvert redemption arcs, sometimes powerfully.  But if you’ve been pulling off a redemption arc and making us feel sympathy for the character, you need to make the failed redemption feel like a tragedy, like something that we should feel sad over.  While it’s a stick figure comic and I don’t really like how the character progression was, “The Order of the Stick” actually did it really well with Miko.  The strip lampshades that not everyone has a chance at redemption, has Soon express regret that she didn’t get the chance to redeem herself, gives Miko some hope and a bit of happiness in noting that she will get to see her only friend again for visits, and has her accept her fate.  None of that happens here.  The show didn’t even have the son even express some regret that she never got the chance to redeem herself as she promised.  So the tone of the scene works against what the audience should be feeling, and so we start to feel that the characters are simply callous.  And we shouldn’t want to feel callous.

It would have been trivial to simply pay off the redemption arc.  But if they didn’t want to do that, all they needed to do was have the three-breasted woman not be quite so dismissive.  All she needed to do was note that there was no way for her to redeem herself and so that by their code she had to die anyway.  Or simply have the freaks all come together, note her contribution, but say that because she betrayed them at the start she has no place there, and so has to leave, and have her tearfully accept that.  And if they really wanted to have this anti-climactic ending to they arc, they still needed to set it up better and, ideally, tie it to an overarching theme.  Or even show the character in her own version of heaven, perhaps even at the freak show at the end.  All it needed was something to make her death not be entirely pointless, both in and out of universe.  And they didn’t.

The show also is the first one to start to make references to what is clearly a shared universe.  In this case, one of the freaks is played by an actress who also appeared in Asylum, and so they use this as a prequel to her ending up there.  I think that going for the shared universe loses the big benefit of the series — that, admittedly, they never really took advantage of — and risks a lot of confusion — which characters are different characters but are just being played by the same actress and which are the same character — but this one is at least an interesting enough one that it works here, and it doesn’t really have any serious consequences, unlike some others later.

The season still puts too many stories and characters into one short season, but things are more interconnected and are better contained so it works better than the other seasons.  Still, discarding the most sympathetic character as garbage and giving the less sympathetic characters happy endings makes it so that I don’t really want to watch this season again.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Coven”

November 3, 2020

The third season of “American Horror Story” is just plain bad.

The main premise, obviously, is witches.  So think of something like “The Craft”, and in fact maybe you should just go and watch that instead.  In New Orleans, there’s a coven of witches that has fallen on hard times, and a new girl — who discovers her power when she pretty much kills her boyfriend when having sex with him, which is a more explicit version of Rogue from the X-Men movies — joins to learn about her powers.  The “Supreme” also returns, for nefarious reasons.  There’s also a competing group practicing voodoo in the city, with a truce between the two.  And the house also originally held a cruel slaveowning woman who tortured the slaves and her own children in a quest for prestige and eternal life, which also interests Fiona, the Supreme (I really can’t think of that without thinking of The Supremes), which is what inspires her to dig that woman up and try to use her.  And, as is normal for “American Horror Story”, there’s a number of other stories, like the main teacher — not the Supreme — wanting to get pregnant and having an arc with new powers, and the Hollywood starlet getting drugged and raped and accidentally killing the new girl’s potential boyfriend while killing those who raped her and them bringing him back to life out of the parts of all of those who died akin to Frankenstein, and there being witch hunters and there being a betrayal arc with the one black witch with the voodoo practitioners and there’s probably a couple more that I can’t remember and don’t want to look up.

So, again, to start it’s pretty cluttered.  But that isn’t what makes it bad.

The first big problem is that, again, Jessica Lange’s character is an unsympathetic character that nevertheless gets a ton of focus.  She comes back because it’s time to replace the Supreme with one from the new generation, and she ends up killing the top candidate by “accident”.  Well, the scene sets it up as being by accident — she is encouraging her replacement to kill her and take her powers like she did to her predecessor and ends up slashing her throat when the girl protests — but the rest of the work treats it as intentional and planned, and even later hints that she was planning to do it to the final candidate for the position.  So either she did intend it while the scene doesn’t really show that — and so she was at best being overly clever — or else the scene didn’t properly show that it was intentional.  The show establishes that she’s willing to do anything to stay alive — she’s actually contracted a fatal illness — even to the point of sacrificing others and even her daughter — the head teacher — to get it … but they spend a lot of time outlining her background and even at the end she gets an emotional send-off by her daughter that she really did nothing to deserve.  The show also spends a lot of time letting her give emotional speeches which are both boring and things that we don’t care about because we don’t really care about the character.  And she doesn’t even get a redemption arc, because she tries to make an agreement for her soul and innocent lives for immortality, and is told that she has no soul, and so at the end, after her daughter implores her to let her life go, she ends up getting sent to … what the show has established as hell.  And it’s a banal hell at that.  So effectively it’s “Let go and get to hell already!”.  I’m not sure it was worth the emotional writing for that send-off scene, even if we cared enough about her to really getting the appropriate feels from the scene.

And this is only worse because they had a character that could have had a better redemption arc.  Emma Roberts plays the Hollywood starlet, whom I liked in “Scream Queens”.  She’s the character that was raped at the frat party, and while she’s a spoiled bitch most of the time there are flashes of her being not so terrible.  She only really starts to press for becoming The Supreme because Fiona convinces her that she could be.  While she seems to be looking to seduce the new girl’s revived boyfriend (after she herself is revived) she actually tries to turn it into a polyamorous relationship (which is stupid itself, but let’s put that aside).  Her vision of hell sounds like a banal one — she’s in a holiday musical and isn’t even the star — and played for laughs, but there’s a lot of potential in that, since there are a lot of comments on how she isn’t considered to be a great actress.  They could have easily played off the tricks she pulls and her obsession with being the Supreme as her trying to find some way to be “the best”, leaving her character arc to be her realizing that she just needs to be herself, not the best at everything.

Instead, what happens is that during a competition to become the Supreme — more on that later — she refuses to revive the new girl, seeing her as potential competition.  The new girl gets revived anyway, but at the same time her rebuilt boyfriend decides to kill the starlet for not reviving her.  And all that happens in that scene is … the boyfriend kills her, making it pretty much a meaningless scene.  It would have worked a lot better to have the new girl come up there after being revived and stop him from doing that.  The starlet could run off, and then the new girl could go, talk to her, and get her to see that she didn’t need to be the best but needed to be happy with what she had and her own abilities.  This would allow for a proper redemption arc in the show and also make the ending work better, instead of tossing away one of the few remaining original witches pointlessly.

Another issue with the show is that they tried to play on the racial issue, with the black voodoo practitioners and the white witches.  First, it would have worked better to have race have nothing to do with their differences, but it really be about the fact that they are competing mystic disciplines, especially since the witches did contain a black witch and there was little to no racial tension or insults levied towards her (the starlet picked on her, but tended to refer to her weight and not her race).  The only person in the house who made racial comments was the brought back woman, and she was clearly depicted as being terrible and not representative.  Second, about all that came out of that racial tension were comments, usually from the voodoo side, which came across as eyerolling.  Third, common racial tension means that we should be on the side of the black characters over the white ones … but the white ones were the main characters and so that wouldn’t work.  About the only think that they would have needed to change was the black witch’s reasons for siding with and joining with the voodoo group, but they had one as her powers were described as like being a living voodoo doll, which sounds an awful lot like a power derived from voodoo, not witchcraft.  The voodoo priestess could have used that angle as an in instead of the race angle, and this could have triggered a crisis of confidence in the head teacher where she wonders if she was so desperate to find witches to keep the coven going that she convinced herself that someone who was practicing voodoo was really a witch, and so broke the treaty in her desperation.  And at the end it could be made clear that that character was a witch, leading to the resolution and the ending.  Which is the stupid thing that really killed the show.

Fiona, their Supreme, is dying, although she didn’t really do much for them in the first place, which might be why the coven is also dying.  She thought that the starlet was her replacement, and so killed her.  But the starlet had a heart murmur, and the Supreme had to be in perfect health, so it had to be someone else.  The starlet is revived and is now in perfect health, and so starts pushing her claim again.  The head teacher suspects that it might be the new girl.  There’s also a swamp witch with the power to revive people — which is a big one for this — that they think might be the one.  And then the others figure their powers are changing and they might be the one.  And so they decide to have a competition for the Seven Wonders, where they test them to see if they can exhibit all the powers the Supreme is supposed to have.  But this settles nothing.  The new girl gets killed in the competition as they are playing tag, and it ends up killing off the swamp witch because she can’t escape from the hell that she ends up in (which is again a pretty prosaic one).  This supposedly leaves only the starlet in the mix after the voodoo witch can’t revive the new girl but it’s important to remember that the Seven Wonders wasn’t really about the competition, but was about being able to demonstrate all the powers.  Typically there’s only one person running it at a time and if they fail to demonstrate a power they aren’t the Supreme.  But the show treats this as being a victory and has the starlet pretty much insist that that’s the case.

But what happens and what makes it all irrelevant is that, then, the head teacher is convinced by the last remaining member of the advisory council — this is important for later — that maybe she is the Supreme, so she decides to run through the Seven Wonders.  And, of course, she passes.  But what’s critical is that the starlet fails the divination test.  Now, she protests continuing the Seven Wonders — which is stupid, because she would have had to do that anyway — and having them be in direct competition was ridiculous because that time had passed.  The competition is explicitly stated to not be the point.  The starlet would have had to try the divination test at some point and would have failed it anyway.  So all the competition did was get the swamp witch pointlessly killed.  They spent a lot of time and wasted an interesting character on a pointless and uninteresting competition.

(As an aside, the show seems to love to do this to Lily Rabe.  In Asylum, her good but corruptible nun was shunted aside to be completely possessed by a demon, and then the demon was pointlessly offed.  Here, her swamp witch dies off pointlessly wasting the potential of the character.)

This could have been done so much better and without all the taunting by simply having them run the Seven Wonders individually.  Start with the starlet and show her failing the divination test.  Or else have the new girl go first and kill herself in the tests, and have the starlet refuse to resurrect her in case she’d succeed.  Have the swamp witch fail at something other than the “Go to hell” test so that she can survive (seriously, we believed them when they had others run it and were told that it was incredibly dangerous).  Essentially show only the Wonders for each witch that we needed to establish that they had failed or that were needed for other character points later (like the starlet’s hell test, for example).  Then have it be clear that none of them are the Supreme.  Then have the head teacher be convinced to try it, and succeed, finishing her development arc and humbling the others.  Then have the starlet’s redemption arc and form a new council of three with the three remaining witches instead of the two that they ended up with.  And we would even have arcs for all of them with the starlet’s redemption arc, the voodoo witch’s acceptance as a witch, and the new girl’s finding a new home.  This would be shorter which would allow for them to do other things, avoids two annoyingly pointless deaths, builds a council that’s more a mirror of what existed at the beginning, only based on youth in order to deal with this new world and the new, revived coven and proves that the head teacher was in fact successful after all.

(It also would have made the “going public” aspect easier as the starlet would have had more contacts to at least get the interviews going to reveal that witches really existed, but that in itself was a stupid plot).

And there are lots of other stupid things that I could go on about, as I haven’t really touched on the whole plot with the evil woman cursed to live forever, who is another unsympathetic character that gets far too much screentime.  Suffice it to say I can’t really think of any plot or arc that went well here, and while the show finally manages to end on a note of “The adventure continues” rather than on loose ends about the only thing I can really give it credit for is ending with the more sympathetic character in charge and with a feel-good ending.  I can’t imagine watching this again.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Asylum”

October 27, 2020

“Asylum” is the second season of “American Horror Story”, and it seems to combine the issues of the first season with the issues that will become much worse in the next couple of seasons.

The first issue is that instead of being a tight, focused story it combines a number of different plots into one loosely related plot and so loses the focus.  We have a serial killer in modern times, which is what starts the season (a newlywed couple are exploring the abandoned asylum and meet the killer).  Then we also have a number of plots set back in the time when the asylum was active, where most of the time is spent.  We have the original serial killer plot.  We have a UFO abduction plot.  We have a demonic possession plot.  We have a Nazi scientist creating horrors plot.  We have the horrors of the asylum being driven by the psychotic head nun plot.  And we have the reporter trying to figure all this out and getting trapped inside the asylum plot.  There’s just way too many plots going on here for something that’s only going to run for thirteen episodes.  The serial killer angle with the reporter, the guy accused of it, and the UFO abduction that the serial killings mask would work as a main plot, while the power struggle between the head nun, the demon and the doctor would have worked as an interesting B-plot that could have brought a break from the main plot but also tied into it.  The modern killings could have been cut completely as all they did was set up for a plot point in the ending that actually would have followed as well if not better just from the original plot itself, and showing murders in the modern era didn’t add anything to that.  Instead, it’s all a mix of convoluted ideas that often only seem to be there to do cool things (the demon plot really seems like that, as it has no real impact on anything in the show).

The other issue is that it seems to be focusing in Jessica Lange’s head nun character, who is sadistic and cruel and so isn’t sympathetic in any way.  This is despite the fact that the reporter and the nun that ends up being possessed are far more sympathetic and often seem to be characters that would work better as focus characters.  The reporter has good reasons to interact with everyone and is only there against her will, while it would have worked really well to have the nun being corrupted slowly instead of just turning into a completely evil demon.  But, no, instead the season focuses on the head nun who is ambitious and at least morally ambiguous, if not sadistic and evil.  And as noted the worst part about doing that is that the other characters and plots lose time that they needed to develop properly.  We don’t care that much about the demon-possessed nun, or the reporter, or the accused man and his disappeared wife and the woman who he falls in love with because we don’t get the chance to get to know them well enough, and often what we do know isn’t pleasant anyway.  This makes the more emotional scenes later fall flat, because we really don’t care enough about the characters or their predicament.

This also carries over to the ending, as while it’s told by the reporter, it focuses on making sure the head nun gets a good ending.  The reporter sets out to try to rescue her from the asylum before it closes, only to find out that the accused man already freed her and took her into his home.  This is despite the fact that his wife, after returning from being abducted by aliens, ended up in there after killing the woman he met in the asylum (they were living together in a polyamorous relationship, with their two children, who survived).  So he wants to save her, but not his wife whom he loved and went through hell for.  Then, she lives with them but has … issues, yet he comments that while she could be nasty at times the children loved her as they saw through it.  This is someone that early on he had to angrily yell at to not hit his kids (and I’m thinking that she wasn’t going to just give them a spanking).  Then she gets a nice death scene where she gets to give some final inspirational words and we’re supposed to feel emotional about it.  Except that she was a sadistic woman and we’re given no real reason to think that she’s reformed or redeemed in any way.  And she gets a better send off than the man does — he disappears in a flash of light after getting too old to do much — and a longer resolution to her arc than the seemingly more central serial killer son did.  The show didn’t even really resolve the UFO plot or why the kids were so special, despite harping it up throughout the series.

She’s also involved in one of the most obvious examples of where the writers took up time to do something cool but that wasn’t really relevant.  There’s one scene where the head nun is now a patient and a jukebox has been brought in to replace the record that she constantly repeated all the time (which, to be honest, I kinda missed when it was smashed and went away).  Anyway, we get a musical number to “The Name Game” starring the head nun, which turns out to all be in her head.  Unlike in “Agent Carter”, the scene is fun and not a total waste, but that’s only because it isn’t really related to anything in the season at all.  I would have been more forgiving of it if it hadn’t been for all the other things that were more cool than meaningful, like the two-parter with someone who is supposedly Anne Frank that only reveals what we already knew about the doctor and that could have been revealed without that, especially given its meaningless ending.  They have thirteen episodes; they really needed to get on with things.

There are also some Social Justice elements as well.  At the risk of being branded anti-gay, I reacted to the revelation early on in the season that the reporter was a lesbian with rolled eyes and a “Of course she is”.  As in the first season, this wasn’t really relevant and nothing was done with it.  This could be another example of “normalization”, except that normalization means that you don’t make a big deal out of it and they did, using the time to make comments about discrimination against gay people.  Still, I probably would have forgiven it since it ultimately does do some things — explains why she’s locked up and the relationship to her lover when the lover is killed by the serial killer — and so is somewhat relevant.  The problem is that they also introduced, just before that, an interracial relationship and again explicitly called out the issues with those sorts of relationships, and of course that won’t be relevant to the story either.  Since that happened in the same episode if I recall correctly, it’s clear that they wanted to draw attention to that — thus ensuring that it can’t be normalization — but didn’t want to do anything with it either.  That it could have been done with a friends relationship or with other means only highlights how badly they mucked that up.

Because they have too many plotlines and focus on unsympathetic characters — especially the head nun — this isn’t a season that appealed to me.  It’s unlikely that I’d watch it again.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Murder House”

October 20, 2020

When I heard of the premise of “American Horror Story”, I was intrigued.  It sounded like an interesting idea:  take an ensemble cast of actors and create a story from a different horror premise every season.  From what I understood, the stories were completely separate, and so didn’t reuse characters, at least not very much.  This would allow them, I thought, to create one set, simple, self-contained story in each season, as they didn’t have to worry about either closing off loose ends from previous seasons or building for the next season like shows like “Buffy” and “Angel” often had to do.  They also wouldn’t have the “character cruft” of having to take into account the evolving backstories and events that happened to their on-going characters.  In short, each plot and character would be new and they’d be free to explore them as they wanted.  This would also be good for the actors as they’d be able to explore a variety of character roles without having to change series.  Sure, they’d lose the world-building that previous seasons could provide, but without having to do any of those other things surely they’d have the time to do that themselves.

So when I found the first six seasons cheap at Walmart, I definitely wanted to give them a try.  Obviously I didn’t watch them right away, because I never watch things right away.  But with “Doom Patrol” and “Rat Patrol” coming up in the sched after I watched “Deep Space 9”, it seemed like a good fit, especially since as each season was self-contained I’d want to talk about each season individually which would provide a number of posts for my blog, it seemed like a perfect time to give it a try and see how it worked out.

Remember what happens when I look forward to things?

Anyway, at the point of writing this I’ve just finished Season 4 (Freakshow) and am about to start Season 5 (Hotel).  I’m planning on writing about all of these seasons in a short period of time and scheduling them ahead, because I want to talk about at least Season 3 and 4 before they fade in my memory (this is usually not a good sign, as the only series that I liked that I wished I hadn’t left for a while before writing about it was “Nightmare on Elm Street”), and I should be finished watching the next two seasons in the next week or so, so what you’re going to get is six weeks of that in this slot.  I’m lumping this series in with my horror examinations in categories and tags because it is horror, but it fits into the “Things I’m Watching” slot that is normally in the “Not-So-Casual Commentary” category because I’m not watching it because it’s a cheap horror series, but because it’s something that I wanted to watch in the vein of “Pretty Little Liars”.

So with that preamble out of the way, let’s start looking at “Murder House”.

The horror premise here is one of the most classic:  a haunted house that has experienced shocking acts of violence in its past, and a troubled family that moves into the house and has to face it.  It includes a tragedy among the parents — the wife had a miscarriage recently — and a moody teenage girl who seems to be interested in the supernatural and dark things.  Along the way, they meet various ghosts, most of which have murderous intent, along with the normal assortment of creepy neighbours, along with, later, the woman the husband had an affair with who turns up pregnant.

Let me talk about the horror premise first, because it is used in a couple of interesting ways.  The first is that anyone who dies on the property becomes a ghost and trapped in the house, seemingly with no way out.  This is interesting and also allows for a few relatively unique situations.  First, when the husband and one of the creepy townspeople end up killing his lover, they do so on the property and that means that she doesn’t actually go away.  There is an explicit event where there is a murder and the murderers insist on moving the body off the property before the person dies so that they won’t come back as a ghost and so cause even more trouble.  And one neighbour, when her daughter was hit by a car, tries desperately to drag her onto the property so that she can at least be revived as a ghost.  These are things that you wouldn’t see in a normal haunted house premise.

The other thing is that at the very end a new family moves into the house and the “good” ghosts make it their goal to scare them out before the “bad” ghosts kill them and trap them there as well.  A similar twist has been done before — in “The Others” — but this has to be one of the first times that the ghosts themselves are trying to frighten the people so that they will avoid a greater threat.  The idea that the threatening and very frightening ghosts are doing that not to frighten the people and are not really a threat to them is pretty interesting, even if given the nature of the show and series it can’t really be explored in detail.

But — and you knew this was coming — the season has its problems.  The first one is that I was hoping that with one season — and a short one at that, as it’s only 12 episodes — that they’d be constrained by the format and so would write a nice, tight story with well-done, consistent characters with interesting arcs.  After all, they had one season to tell the story they wanted to tell here, so they’d have to be focused, right?

Well, no, not really.  There’s a lot of side stories that they take a lot of time on that don’t really add that much to the overall story.  For much of it, we aren’t sure how all these pieces will fit together and often at the end they aren’t really paid off.  Probably the worst is the gay couple, who were in the house just before this family (I think) and supposedly tie into the plotline where one of the original inhabitants lost her baby and desperately wants one back.  Why this becomes a problem is that they inserted the gay couple who are having problems since one of them is cheating and the other is obsessive into this plot by having them contemplating having a baby.  Now, this is of course possible, but their whole purpose is to tie into that plot and we know that they were going to have to adopt or use a surrogate, so as soon as that comes up we are going to think about the implications of that.  Using a male/female couple wouldn’t raise any of those issues and so we could focus on their connection to the plot without thinking about how that would work.

Jonathan MS Pearce wrote a post talking about normalization in media:

A few weeks ago, I was watching a film on Netflix with my partner called The Old Guard. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable action/fantasy movie.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the film that I turned to my partner and said, “I bet you haven’t really realised that the two main protagonists in this action flick are female, and one is black!”

She admitted that it hadn’t even crossed her mind (not to mention that two of the other main protagonists were casually gay, by which I mean it wasn’t an integral part of the story/plot or a particularly meaningful thematic point).

So you could argue that that’s all this one:  attempting to normalize gay relationships.  The problem is that normalization doesn’t work if there is a relevant difference that people will notice.  You can’t just plunk characters into a situation where their presence will change how the situation will be perceived.  As an example, putting a white person into a position of being discriminated against based on their race is going to raise issues of privilege and whether racism can apply to whites and so on.  In fact, it would likely be perceived in today’s climate as being a right-wing attack on the concept of racism and racial discrimination.  If one didn’t want to raise those issues, then being “colourblind” would mean accidentally raising those issues which will distract from the main issue.  If they didn’t want to raise the issues around a gay couple having a kid, then they should have used a male/female couple and avoided that.  So you can’t explain that with the “normalization” argument, because the issues it raises will make the perceptions not normal.  Without the baby aspect, it could have worked.  Of if they had made the issues explicit and used them in the plot, then that would have worked as well.  But they didn’t do either.

This is only made worse by the fact that they actually overemphasize the relationship.  They have one scene in an episode where they have a fight and all the issues come out, including the “wanting a kid”.  Then in a later episode they move forward in time and … have the exact same argument revealing the same situation.  And then they appear as ghosts, raise similar issues, and the cheating member of the couple aggressively propositions the husband.  All this was doing was taking up screen time that could have been used for other things.  If they had, for example, shown that they weren’t having the problems until later and used that as an example of the house’s influence and then hinted that it was affecting the main couple as well (and at the time the ghosts did seem to be trying to corrupt the husband, mostly sexually) then it would have worked because the scenes would have been different and built on each other.  But all it did was repeat what we already knew, which obviously is quite boring.

It also has a problem where the two characters that I think we are supposed to most relate to aren’t very sympathetic, and the husband whom I think we’re supposed to see as a bit shady comes off better than they do.  The first is the daughter, who is angry at her father for some reason but not at her mother, even though at times the mother seems to be more responsible for the problems.  She also seems to immediately fall in love with the house for its “dark” aspects, but then later acts like she hates the house and everything else, despite her enthusiastic approval being presented as a reason for them to take it.  Now, she is a teenage girl so this isn’t necessarily unreasonable, and she talks about hating it after being bullied a bit which could explain it, but the show never calls her out on the contradiction, even if she wouldn’t answer why she had the change of heart.  A lot of the time she comes off as being whiny and unfair, so she isn’t all that sympathetic.  She is likeable at times, so it mostly works, but we certainly don’t want to trust her opinion of things and people … especially once she remains in love with and interested in the guy she knows is a murderer.

She’s also involved in an unnecessary side plot, where it turns out that she was actually dead, which reveals to us the nature of the house.  The problem with this is that while it did drop hints that we can follow up on later — why isn’t she going to school and why isn’t she eating? — it didn’t build it as enough of a mystery for us to be puzzled enough to care about the resolution, so it comes off as a kinda clever twist that wasn’t properly developed for its full emotional impact.

The other character is the mother herself.  Her tragedy should make her sympathetic, and the fact that her husband cheated on her should again make us feel for her.  But where the show lost me with her is when they start fighting over having moved out there, and she throws the miscarriage in his face, completely ignoring that it’s something that would have bothered him as well.  Sure, it would have bothered her more, but she completely ignores his feelings to force him to focus on hers, and at that point he really did seem to be focusing on hers as well.  This argument is also over them starting to potentially have sex again, and it is revealed that they hadn’t had sex in over a year, which makes his cheating in her not acceptable, but more understandable, as he was a professor who met attractive young women daily — many of which were probably trying to seduce him — and was sexually frustrated.  This would make this a tragedy on both their parts, as she reasonably wouldn’t be ready for sex that quickly and he would still have needs he wanted to satisfy.  Yes, he should have resisted the temptation and what he did was wrong, but it wasn’t him simply being a philanderer.

The other issue is one that kinda gets retconned later in the season.  He asks her what her plan was for working this out, and she says she doesn’t know.  The implication up to that point was that she was the one who thought moving there would help them save the marriage, and he went along with it because he wanted things to work out.  And so I wondered why in the world she would suggest this plan with no idea for how to proceed with it, which made me think less of her.  Later, they show the original scene and he is the one pressing her to do it and she is reluctant.  This doesn’t work because if he had asked her that question in the original argument and it was his idea, she would have thrown that back in his face instead of saying that she didn’t know, since how could she know how to proceed when it was his idea in the first place?  They also later show — in an attempt, I think, to make the dates work out — that after she found out about the affair he had sex with his lover to get her pregnant.  But all this does is attempt to make him look worse and her look better, and if we’ve been paying attention we’re probably going to notice that and not be that receptive to it.

The season also makes the mistake — which might be reasonable given that it was the first season — of potentially setting things up for future seasons.  It starts with the fact that the family is still in the house and is planning on scaring off future families, but the Christmas aspect actually makes that a happy ending … and is where it should have ended.  But then they add in the daughter’s psycho boyfriend — that she rejects for being psycho — and the husband’s psycho affair both watching from outside the window and planning to deal with them:  the boyfriend to win her back and the lover to get revenge.  And then there was one child who was born to the wife who lived and was taken out of the house who commits a murder at the very end.  None of these were necessary and blunt the tragic yet happy ending for the family, as they are together and happy with the good ghosts.

The babies are also odd, since one of them was supposedly fathered by a ghost, and yet the women in the house — and all people in the house are corporeal, but just can’t really die again — can’t have children.  I can come up with an explanation for this — they’re physical, but wouldn’t be physical enough to nourish an actual life — but it’s just a really weird thing that they never really explain.

Ultimately, the season wasn’t bad, but I was hoping for a more consistent and coherent story, and it seemed like it rambled for a bit.  It’s possible that I could watch it again.