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New fall season: FX's uneven American Horror Story scares up a storm of nightmare scenarios

Calm before their storms: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga of American Horror Story. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O'Hare, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Alexandra Breckinridge, Jamie Brewer, Katelyn Reed
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk

It's creepy, it's trampy, it's campy, it's all over the place.

FX's American Horror Story certainly qualifies as the damnedest new series of the fall season. But is it damnable, too? Are its two lead producers, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, brilliant in their abilities to fashion an adrenaline-pumping, commercially sponsored TV show that manages to get away with murder in virtually every way, shape or form? Or in this particular case, might they be closer to being just a pair of sick sadists? There's no easy answer.

Murphy and Falchuk so far have teamed on FX's Nip/Tuck and Fox's Glee. The former soared in its first two seasons before running aground with gratuitous excesses built into increasingly ludicrous story lines. And Glee already shows signs of being perhaps a three-season wonder after Season 2 loaded up on guest stars, lost its heart and now is losing viewers at a fairly alarming rate.

So it's a fair question to ask: Can Murphy and Falchuk sustain a premise, let alone a series, for more than a season or two? Or are they masters of the bang-up idea, but poor stewards of what comes next?

They producers say their influences for Horror Story include Dark Shadows, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining and particularly the comparatively obscure 1973 Nicolas Roeg movie Don't Look Now, which starred Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a married couple struggling to recover emotionally from their daughter's drowning death. The film trades heavily on imagery and misdirection. What's real and what's not what it seems?

In American Horror, familiar TV stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) play husband and wife Ben and Vivien Harmon. They also have a lippy, oft-resentful teen daughter named Violet (Taissa Farmiga). A family of four was planned, but the trauma of Vivien's miscarriage was compounded by her catching Ben in bed with one of his young students. Initially suspecting a home intruder, she lashed at him with a kitchen knife.

Now the Harmons are trying to heal emotionally by moving cross-country and settling into a "classic L.A. Victorian" that was built in the 1920s for a noted "doctor to the stars." It's first introduced in Wednesday's opening flashback (circa 1978) as a place where really bad things continue to happen. But hey, the price is right.

Horror Story, whose decidedly off-the-charts theme music is more a series of grinding sound effects, moves with lightning quickness from scene to scene. Whether all of this is capably stitched together may be another matter entirely. But boredom's not an option. Nor is timidity. FX takes pride in being an envelope-pusher. And the graphic language and sexuality in Horror Story is Fed Exed to the same area code as dramas on HBO or Showtime.

Neither of those pay-extra networks has to worry about offending advertisers. In Horror Story's case, 90 percent of conventional mainstream sponsors likely will shy away from scenes such as McDermott's nude Ben groaningly masturbating after watching a sexed-up housecleaner tease him by fingering herself. The premiere episode also uses the full 10-letter word for oral sex, with one of Ben's unhinged young male patients (Evan Peters as Tate Langston) deploying it to describe the promiscuous mother he's come to hate. McDonald's is not going to be hawking Big Macs on this one.

The housekeeper, by the way, appears in different form to Ben than to anyone else. Alexandra Breckenridge is constantly tempting him as the shapely, ever-unbuttoning young Moira while Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is cast as the middle-aged frumpish version hired by Vivien.

There's also the severely disfigured Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare), who burned his wife and their two daughters alive while they lived in the Harmons' new home. Literally two-faced, he pursues Ben during one of his frequent jogs. "Your family is in danger," he warns. And as for killing his family, "they told me what to do."

Best of all -- and the principal reason to watch Wednesday's first episode -- is Jessica Lange as next door neighbor Constance. Oozing with barbed Southern charm, she has an omnipresent "Mongoloid" daughter (as she puts it) and quashed ambitions to be a movie star after moving to Hollywood from deep down South. Nudity increasingly was required at the time, and "I wasn't about to have my green pasture flash 70 feet high for every man, woman and child to see," Constance tells Vivien after barging unannounced into her kitchen. She's a regular Norma Desmond, with a triple shot of Blanche DuBois. Yummy.

Britton was reluctant to take on a scary TV series and says she never watched Nip/Tuck because it was "too gory." In that respect, she seems a bit out of sync in some of these early scenes with Lange. But Britton later steels herself for a no-holds-barred cathartic faceoff with Ben, who finally blows up after she again spurns his sexual advances.

"I'm not punishing you, your narcissistic asshole," she fires back after he rages at her. "I can't even look at your face, Ben, without seeing the expression on it while you were pile-driving her in our bed." No, we're not in Dillon, Texas anymore.

McDermott flashes his still well-muscled torso a lot while also demonstrating an ability to weep in abject frustration or panic. But can the producers keep these balls in the air? Or even with its intriguing and thoroughly watchable first episode, is Horror Story more a vivid collection of disjointed scenes rather than a sum of whole parts?

FX thankfully sent two more hours for review. And they started to lose me with a truly off-putting 1968 flashback scene at the start of Episode 2. It involves the backstabbing of a teenage girl among other things. And frankly, it leaves a sickening feeling before Horror returns to the present, where the same copycat killing scenario eventually is visited upon Vivien and her daughter while Ben is away in Boston on false pretenses.

Again, Britton looks uncomfortable trying to pull off such scenes. It's as if she's seriously asking herself, "What have I gotten into as an actress?" That's a fair question for viewers as well. Terror obviously is at the heart of this series. But is FX simply grinding in its glass shards, just because it can?

The word "campy" was used at the outset of this review. Horror Story can be that, too, although probably not altogether intentionally. Some of this stuff actually starts to get laughable, with Ben's tortured psyche careening all over the place while he keeps trying to talk everyone except himself into therapy.

And although she says them deliciously, Lange sometimes is more saddled than equipped with lines like "You think I want to stay in this world of death and rotten regret?"

That is, of course, the central question. After Episode 2's home invasion, why on earth would anyone in their right mind stick around to keep experiencing these individual hells on earth? Episode 3 addresses that question, with Vivien insisting they move out before learning about certain complications that really don't fly dramatically.

Meanwhile, the "Eternal Darkness" bus tour continues to make its regular stops at the Harmons' famed "Murder House." Vivien even goes along for a ride one day, enabling the series to flash back to the place's first decidedly bizarre residents.

It's a lot to process, and at times too much to take. Still, Horror Story often is a wonder. And it's also bloody well worth watching if you want to get a strong dose of where television might be going in terms of standards, practices and the near-obliterating of same on an ad-supported network.

The producers still have to prove, though, that they can make the distinction between scare tactics with an underlying thematic purpose and excesses that veer between laughable and degenerate. American Horror Story so far cuts both ways.