American Gothic

Okay, it’s compare-and-contrast time. American Horror Story fans, meet American Gothic. I’ve been thinking there is a resemblance there, beyond just the title, and the recent addition of enigmatic Sarah Paulson to the cast of the former prompted me to finally write this.

Let’s start with the subject matter. Subverting the archetype of the happy American family has been done in practically every genre of entertainment, but works especially well for horror. The idea of evil lurking beneath the facade of normalcy may be what scares us more than anything. Continue reading

American Horror Story

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a pilot that convinced me that the ensuing show was going to be something differentAmerican Horror Story employs a lot of conventions we’ve seen before, yet this episode completely held my attention. I can’t exactly say I loved it–it’s no The Walking Dead, the brilliance of which I will never shut up about–but it has that thing. I can’t help but compare it to Locke & Key, which was screened at Comic-Con this year but never actually made it TV. The powerful aesthetic of American Horror Story (on FX) further convinced me that Locke & Key failed only because it was shopped to the wrong network, but I digress… Continue reading

Pretty Little Liars

ABC Family is hyping the heck out of the Season 2 premiere of Pretty Little Liars in January, so time to catch up. This show that looks something like Desperate Housewives for teenagers has a slick look and sinister-sounding previews.

The pilot opens in full-on horror movie mode. A group of cute girls are sitting around a candle-lit barn while the wind howls against the creaky door. They’re creeped out by a sound from outside and stand, as a group, ready to face terror. It turns out to be just their friend sneaking up on them. We do a 180 into a much-too-quick scene of some slumber party chatter. (Is the fact that they like Beyonce important, or is this just an awkward attempt at natural-sounding teen banter?) Then they pass a big cup filled with some dark liquid. There’s a mention of the beverage making people share secrets, and one of them says, “Our secrets are what keep us close.” This last quote is imbued with a kind of weight cluing us into its importance.

In the morning the last girl to have arrived, Alison (Sasha Pieterse, who showed up in the later, less-watchable episodes of Heroes), has disappeared. Up to this point we have jumped from one situation to another with lightening speed and absolutely no chance for character development. So are we shocked that this girl is gone? Not really.

At last we start getting to know one of the girls, Aria (Lucy Hale of Privileged). One year has passed since the opening scenes, and Aria’s family has just moved back to town after her father’s sabbatical in Europe. Aria’s mother (Holly Marie Combs) encourages her to reconnect with her friends, but clearly things have changed. In fact, we are reminded at every turn how much things have changed. This is one example of how this show tells the audience things rather than showing them.

The town is Rosewood, Pennsylvania, the kind of pretty East Coast town with an air of evil reminiscent of Amityville. Aria’s return to school gives the opportunity for exposition and further character introductions. It’s the “Prodigal Son/Daughter” pilot formula. Although Aria’s mother points out for the audience that a year is a long time in the life of a 16-year-old, it feels like the passage of time is treated a little too seriously. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” says a classmate to Aria. “Last time I saw you, you had a pink streak in your hair.”

 The only point about the school social hierarchy that seems important to remember for now is that a formerly geeky girl, who our heroines picked on, is now popular and cute (translation, she got contacts). In scenes with each of the four remaining girls, Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Bianca, we begin to see that honesty is not a virtue in Rosewood. They lie, they shoplift, and they flirt with sisters’ boyfriends. Each of the girls receives a mysterious message—either by text or note—warning her that someone is watching her unethical behavior, and signed “A.”

Alison’s body is discovered, and a funeral is held. At this point we’ve begun to suspect that one or more of the girls might know more than they’re saying about Alison’s death. Yet, from the cryptic conversation of the girls combined with the semi-anonymous messages, it seems she might not really be dead. Certainly these pretty little liars have a secret, but it turns out that their secret—one of them, anyway—concerns not Alison, but a girl named Jenna.

It’s clear there are a lot of layers here, and while the delivery may not be the most sophisticated, the show promises to ask for some loyalty on the part of the audience. It’s great when a pilot leaves you with no clue what’s going on, and this one does that.

The Walking Dead (in retrospect)

I always say that pilot can only be truly appreciated in retrospect. You can’t know how good it is until you see how the whole season—sometimes the whole series—plays out. So I’ve waited until now to blog about The Walking Dead.

This show, which had a 6-episode first season on AMC, has been reviewed and analyzed extensively, for the most part favorably (in places like these.) So I won’t bother raving about how entertaining, exciting and original it is. Though it is all of those things.

The thing to understand about this show is, it’s not a zombie show. It’s a suspenseful, end-of-the-world drama that just happens to have zombies. The pilot lets us know that, giving us rich character introductions and a bleak, ominous landscape.

The opening scene lets us know something isn’t right. A police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), parks his squad car and makes his way through an intersection littered with overturned vehicles. Beyond that he finds an abandoned camp site where bodies rot in cars. Rick appears completely calm, as though he is finding only what he expected. And, while the sight of him putting a bullet in the forehead of a little girl with a teddy bear and half a face packs a punch to the audience, it doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary for Rick.

In hindsight this opening scene feels odd. Where are we? When are we? When Rick first leaves the hospital, trying desperately to figure out what happened to the world during his coma, he is understandably freaked out. He doesn’t know the ways of the new frontier until at least episode 2. Suddenly it’s not clear when in the timeline of the show this scene takes place; maybe we haven’t seen it yet? Why did the writers choose this point of attack? Just to shock us with Cindy Lou Who getting her head blown off? Rick shows much more emotion when, mid-way through the pilot, he shoots the half-woman crawling across the lawn.

A flashback is used to set up the relationship between Rick and his partner, Shane (John Bernthal). This relationship is crucial to the story arc, and its position in the script suggests that. The writers don’t miss a chance to also mention Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), the woman who will represent the point in their love triangle. In the chase of a suspect, Rick and Shane are clearly the competent ones. More importantly, they’re both basically good guys. They have each other’s backs, and together they defend the public good. These characteristics will leave us torn as the story unfolds, unable to paint Shane as a hero or villain. This will prove especially true in the opening scene of episode 6, in a flashback to when the hospital was overrun with zombies. The relationship between the men is also a source of frustrating dramatic irony later in the pilot, when Rick radios through to the campsite having no idea Shane is there.

We don’t get to know any of the other characters in the campsite at this stage. We see just enough to see that a group of survivors is making the best of it on the outskirts of town.

The pilot spends a good chunk of its 66 minutes having us get to know the character Morgan (Lennie James); he has a big dramatic introduction and the possibility of a reunion with Rick for later on. There’s no payoff through, at least this season. Morgan, although a rich character, winds up being no more than a device for explaining the world to the viewing audience. (I, for one, want to know if he ever shoots his wife).

One of the questions running through this episode—for viewers, not the characters—was “how far will they go?” This is a horror show on basic cable. The opening with the little girl gives a pretty strong hint, but we wonder how gross, how shocking, how scary AMC will be. The show does not disappoint in this respect.  The pilot leaves us with a bizarre, gag-worthy gut feast that didn’t let us forget about the show until the following Sunday.