VIC’S REVIEW: ‘American Horror Story’ – Season One (FX – Wednesday, 10:00 p.m.)

American Horror Story revolves around the Harmons, a family of three who moved from Boston to Los Angeles as a means to reconcile past anguish. They move to a restored mansion, unaware that the home is haunted. The all-star cast features Dylan McDermott as “Ben Harmon,” a psychiatrist; Connie Britton as “Vivien Harmon,” Ben’s wife; Taissa Farmiga as “Violet,” the Harmon’s teenage daughter; Jessica Lange in her first-ever regular series TV role as “Constance,” the Harmon’s neighbor; Evan Peters plays “Tate Langdon,” one of Ben’s patients; and Denis O’Hare as “Larry Harvey.” Guest stars for the series include Frances Conroy as the Harmon’s housekeeper; Alexandra Breckenridge as the Harmon’s housekeeper; and Jamie Brewer as Constance’s daughter.

Rating:     75 out of 100

I suppose I’ve had more than ample time to let FX’s American Horror Story sink in. The new Season – American Horror Story: Asylum premieres on October 17th and we get a completely different locale, characters and story (Even though some actors like Jessica Lange and Zachary Quinto do return) to get wrapped up in. I admit that I was very pumped and psyched for this new horror series that eventually frightened the audience with a disturbing premise that forced the show to become somewhat polarizing to many viewers while definitely pushing the envelope.  It wasn’t from lack of execution, no doubt. The show, from the pilot alone, demonstrated flair, drama, scares and conventional yet capable performances from the cast. The opening alone (which is too damned long) gave me the creeps and had me dwelling on what I would find remotely terrifying about this show.  So, yes, I became excited about a weekly balls-to-the-wall horror series.

I wasn’t disappointed at all. I tuned in every week to watch the ghostly and ghastly happenings at the large, haunted mansion where the very dysfunctional Harmon family reside. Dylan McDermot as Ben Harmon is a shrink and practices from home. He has a sordid past indeed that involves cheating on his wife and alcohol dependency. Dylan is headstrong and provincial in his performance and bodes well in the role. Connie Britton, (Spin City) who is very fetching here, plays the emotionally estranged wife, Vivien. She is damaged as well. She trusts no one especially her husband and cannot seem to connect with their daughter, Violet, played brilliantly by Taissa Farmiga (Higher Ground). So, there is a lot of baggage here to begin with plus they have that other problem. They live in a very haunted house. A house that is so damn haunted we are introduced to terrifying new flashbacks regarding past occupants every week.

So, like I stated before, I thought some more on this show and re-watched some episodes and it doesn’t seem to be as exciting or revelatory the second time around. I am not as impressed now as when I watched the show initially. I think besides the very good acting ensemble, there are some flaws that didn’t stand out before. I think I became wrapped up in the shows brutal “in your face” horror antics every week that I missed the fact that the show lacked balance and was hurt by an increasing convoluted story-line. It confused me and that’s never good since I love to be scared… just not for the sake of being scared.

Many by now have seen the show’s first season and know all about the murderous intentions of the dead occupants of the mansion. So, I won’t go over the story very much. That cat has been out of the bag a long time now.

Jessica Lange’s (King Kong) portrayal of Constance Langdon is a marvel to behold. She is unpredictable, maternal one moment and a hellspawn the next. She is also murderous but caring and boy does she hate the Harmon’s shape-shifting maid Moira who appears differently to just about everyone in the house. Lange is most definitely the standout in this show. She gives us a tragic and multi-facted performance as Constance. She is the Harmon’s neighbor from hell who also has a long and sordid history regarding the mansion. Her son Tate, played by Evan Peters is just as whacked as she is. Tate, who is a spirit, seems to be very alive. He roams around the mansion like he owns it. How the hell do these people not know who are dead spirits and who are living people? Hmm. Curious. Anyway, Tate is a suicidal kid with a history of violence. He was my least favorite character. Too mopey and too whiney and eventually just a psychotic mama’s boy.

Rounding the very gruesome cast is Zachary Quinto, another great addition. He is one of the more rounded and believable characters. He is brilliantly well written. Quinto manages to steal every episode he’s in. He is fun to watch even though at times we get bogged down in some dumb “scary house” drama that goes no where. But anyway the show does work well when we aren’t subjected to too much information at once. When the story unravels nicely it’s good but mostly the creators (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) dwell on blasting us with images of bloody jars, slit throats, burnt people and guys dressed in leather. They do establish that the house has a mythology which includes tragic characters as if from a greek play. The Black Dahlia, played stunningly by Mena Suvari, being one of them. I would normally get a bit overwhelmed by it all but I stuck it out if only to follow the story to its conclusion.

James Levine provides a very creepy score that envelops us and the photography by John Aronson and Micheal Goi is finely crafted and they take advantage of natural light to make the mansion look deadly and the actors very malicious. So much happens in the duration of season one that by the 12th episode’s end I felt like I ran a marathon. I feel that the show at a steady pace benefited well, but at warp-speed we lost connection with all the various characters. I almost needed a flow chart sometimes. I do recommend watching perhaps the last three or four episodes before Asylum begins, just to get connected again. American Horror Story may get better this next season. I do admit re-visiting some of the scarier episodes had me wanting more… just not that much more.

Victor

Retro Review: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

Nine gripping stories based on famous myths and legends (and starring Brenda Blethyn, Sean Bean, Miranda Richardson, Gabrielle Anwar, Michael Gambon, Jane Horrocks and Derek Jacobi) are presented here. John Hurt stars as the Storyteller, who, with help from his cynical dog, narrates these beautifully constructed fables that will entrance your entire family. Special effects come courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop. – Netflix

Matt

9 out of 10

I was only 9 years old when this came out, and my family never had cable, so I missed this HBO series created by the genius Jim Henson, whose characters range from Sesame Street’s Big Bird to the iconic Kermit the Frog.

Henson could also take on some very ambitious projects, like the film “Labyrinth.” This show has loads of great production value with great talent, like the academy award nominated actor John Hurt, who plays the narrating storyteller. The puppetry is amazing, as are the sets, design, directing and even costumes.

But what truly sets this Emmy Award-winning series apart is the phenomenal stories that were chosen for this nine-part season. These are dark fairy tales, as they were meant to be. There is no Disney shine put on these stories. They are mean, gloomy and visceral at times. However, they are also smart, funny, and extremely engaging. Most of the stories chosen to be recreated in the series are obscure to Westerners. I only knew one of the stories.

This series is available for instant streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend checking it out. Not friendly for very young viewers. I’d say 10 and up should be fine.

Enjoy this sample from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller:

Retro Review: ‘Prison Break’

This drama focuses on a prison designer who gets himself thrown into one of his own prisons to help his falsely accused brother escape death row. Described as in the vein of The Great Escape (and also compared to “24” due to its compressed time frame and season-length plotline), the series will unfold over 22 episodes, charting the course of a single break – FOX

7 out of 10

If you like shows like 24 and Lost, you’ll like Prison Break. It’s not that it’s like these two shows at all, but it’s edge-of-your-seat excitement with a weekly cliffhanger and a whole bunch of mystery thrown in every week.

Although, the later seasons were not nearly as well-received as the first season, the entire four-season run is pretty good overall. What hurt it overall was that critically acclaimed first season which was so good that it simply didn’t leave the writers with anywhere to go, so for the following three it became a little contrived and very convoluted revolving around government conspiracies and frankly, some really unbelieveable premises. Without a doubt, season one was a 9 to 9.5, though.

Now, is this to say that the show was awful for seasons two through four? No, not at all. Despite all of its flaws, confusion and at times general eye-rolling silliness, the show was very effective for four seasons for two reasons.

First, it did exactly what it was intended to do and that was keep you guessing every week with new mysteries, frenetic action and compelling mysteries and suspense. Second, and this is the most important aspect ot this or any show, the characters were richly developed and wonderfully casted… all of them.

That being said, I think the problem that most folks (audiences and critics alike) had with the show is that it never approached the level of quality that season one was acclaimed for. Often we confuse that for being bad. It was never bad, it just never was as good as that first season.

As a final note, if you decide to go back and give PB a chance, I would highly recommend the direct-to-video 90 minute movie/episode, Prison Break: The Final Break (2009) that was released after the series finale. As a new PB adventure, it’s OK in and of itself, but what’s important about it is that it ties up a lot of loose-ends and gives the series as a whole a sense of closure that was absent in the series finale.

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can watch all four seasons of PB for free through the Netflix streaming service and PB:TFB is available on both Blu-Ray and DVD for rental.

Retro Review: ‘Smallville’ Season 1, Part I (Season 10 Premiere on The CW – September 24, 2010, 8:00 p.m.)

8 out of 10

“Somebody saaaaave me!” Boy, Remy Zero said it accurately, indeed. The Superman Mythos after the explosive Death of Superman and The Return of Superman Comic Book storylines needed a shot in the arm. Waning book sales and iffy stories combined with the disinterest of Superman as a whole had thrown a huge red flag up for DC and Warner Brothers combined. After numerous failed attempts at re-igniting that elusive spark, DC and Warner Bros. had much egg on their face that included an omelet made of Nicolas Cage as Superman…ugh… I shudder to think.

Then in comes Alfred Gough and Miles Millar with a brilliant premise: how about a restart (I despise using the term “reboot”) to this iconic superhero? Let’s start way back but not so far back as to not have Clark Kent, our powerful protagonist, involved in a journey to his destiny of becoming the world’s most renowned hero. Let us begin in Smallville, Kansas and do an origin story that will take us on a great and revealing trip. And with Smallville heading into its final season in just a few weeks, I think back excitedly on what a ride it’s been!

The WB show was touted as a Sci-Fi, fantasy tale but at times does play out like a soap opera. That’s OK, though, because we always know what is to eventually come which no basic Soap on TV can do for its viewers. When particular characters like Lex Luthor and Clark Kent interact we can’t help having that small grin on our face and that thought on our minds that these two guys are going to totally throw down and kick each other’s asses in the future. It’s this aspect that makes Smallville so appealing.

Season One begins, well… in the beginning. In the Smallville pilot we are introduced to the Kents played by the hot Annette O’Toole (Sorry, ever since Paul Schrader’s Cat People I have always had a crush on her) as Martha and John Schneider (Hee Haw!, Dukes of Hazzard) as Jonathan. These are the salt-of-the-earth farmers who will (thanks to the meteor shower that brings that most-famous of all aliens) raise Clark Kent (Tom Welling). It is not easy as we are a witness, too, as the season advances. After the 14 year-old Clark discovers the spaceship that brought him to earth buried in the barn, he begins to question his destiny, and refuses to immediately accept it.

We are soon introduced to Jeremy Creek (Adrian McMorran), our first of many “meteor freaks” who are usually just normal people who are or were infected adversely by the kryptonite.

Clark, of course, becomes enamored with Lana Lang played with plucky enthusiasm by the oh-so cute Kristen Krueck.

Clark then saves Lex Luthor, portrayed by Micheal Rosenbaum (who steals just about every scene he is in) from an almost fatal car accident. Needless to say, Clark stays busy even as he discovers he’s the newest alien on the block. This is just the beginning of where this great ride begins and there is definitely more to come…

The CW Official Smallville page

Watch some full length episodes of Smallville on Hulu.

FYI, Amazon has the complete first season of Smallville on DVD for just $19.99 (67% off of the list price of of $59.98).