Monday, August 19, 2013

American Horror Story as Presentist TV

Have had a shitty couple of days and, for the first time in a long time, wanted to use TV as a means of escape. The last time I can remember doing this is the end of my sophomore year of Bard, during a breakup, when I was experiencing these... searing waves of sickness in my stomach. They took away my appetite; the only things I wanted to eat were Barbara's Jalapeno Cheese Puffs and Kraft Easy Mac, which I did while tearing through the first season of Downton Abbey, then four seasons of 30 Rock in two or three weeks. I only ever liked 30 Rock, and not that much; I loved Downton Abbey—but more than that, I was grateful to both of them. They were the only things that made me feel better.

It isn't nearly as bad this time—like 75% of the reason I'm upset is that the manager of my department called me into her office to ask me to stop texting while I'm on the clock—well, and to (very gently and kindly) tell me off for drawing a bunch of angry doodles on the lasers of a dental school reunion book that I was supposed to be proofreading—and, to be honest, because the doodles weren't even my ~~best work—but I was feeling way shittier about it than I have about anything in recently, so I decided to watch some TV to escape. My first instinct was Chasing Ice, which I have been wanting to see for months and which I found on Netflix Instant when I was scrolling through "Documentaries" not even looking for it—which might be the best thing that can happen—BUT I had three more episodes to go of American Horror Story season 1 and I can't start one thing before I've finished another. Although I am reading both Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff* and Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc** right now, so apparently I can. Anyway, there I was—well, here I am, I'm in the middle of episode 10 ("Smoldering Children") right now—wanting to escape, watching probably the worst thing to escape into.

*because of the Film Crit HULK
**because of Orange is the New Black!

This isn't because AHS is a show in which people are stabbed, shot, cut in half, hit in the face with shovels, doused in gasoline and burned alive, and drowned in bathtubs and apple-bobbing buckets; in which pregnant women eat raw calves' brains, laudanum-addicted doctors sew deer's hooves onto the wrists of their dismembered babies, and ghosts shove pokers up gay mens' asses during staged murder-suicides... Write down every such incident on a piece of paper, pick three at random, and you could build an episode around them that's as coherent as any on the actual show; it sometimes feels like this is exactly what the writers are doing. And it's this—not the content, but the way it's arranged—that makes the show almost impossible to escape into.

In the first chapter of Present Shock, "Narrative Collapse," media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says that the TV shows Friends, Seinfeld, and Two and a Half Men (among many others) are characterized by their "utter lack of traditional narrative goals." For Rushkoff, traditional narratives work based on the story mechanics identified by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. In Biblical stories, information and morals were conveyed by contrasting two characters or nations with one another (Rushkoff 19). Stories with linear arcs, however, "like a breath or lovemaking... have a rise and a satisfying fall; a beginning, a middle, and an end." "The traditional linear story," Rushkoff writes, "works by creating a character we can identify with, putting that character in danger, and then allowing him or her to discover a way out. According to Rushkoff, this way of structuring stories—that of Joseph Campbell's The Heroic Journey—"worked perfectly for conveying values of almost any kind to the captivated audience."
For if we have followed the protagonist into danger, followed him up the incline plane of tension into a state of great suspense and anxiety, we will be willing to accept whatever solution he is offered to get out*... The higher into tension we have gone, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. That's why he can plug in whatever value, idea, or moral he chooses. (Rushkoff 20)
*What this made me think of as I was typing it is torture on 24 (which I've read about but never actually seen).

Rushkoff writes that the invention of the TV remote fundamentally changed the way we relate to such narratives. It allowed us an alternative to being captivated by whatever we were watching (the word entertained literally means "held within")—instead of having to physically get up to change the channel every time, we could break a show or ad's hold on us simply by pressing a button. "Deconstructed in this fashion," Rushkoff says, "television loses its abilities to tell stories over time"—which leads to shows like Beavis and Butt-head, The Simpsons, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Lost, and Heroes—all of which, Rushkoff says, don't even try to.

The "new challenge" for the writers of such shows, according to Rushkoff, is "to generate the sense of captivity, as well as the sensations and insights, of traditional narrative—but to do so without the luxury of a traditional storyline. So they come up with characters who simply wake up in a situation and have to figure out who they are or what the heck is going on around them" (Rushkoff 31). On Lost, "[s]olving the mystery of the island and their relationship to it is not a journey through evidence but a 'making sense' of the world in the moment." Both Lost and Heroes, he says, "are less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now" (Rushkoff 32).

Enter American Horror Story. AHS has no plot to speak of. The Harmon family—Ben, a psychiatrist; Vivien, a former cellist; and their 17-year-old daughter Violet—move into a [style of house in where Los Angeles], and weird shit starts happening. And that's basically it.

The show could be a mystery, because it's full of questions. Who's dead? Who's alive? Can the dead injure or kill each other? Can they kill the living? Can they leave the property? Do you have to die on the property in order to haunt it? These questions are about, as Rushkoff puts it, characters "figur[ing] out who they are or what the heck is going on around them." Answering these questions, though, isn't what propels the plot—as on, say, Broadchurch (which I watched last week) (and loved). "Who killed Laura Palmer/Rosie Larsen/Danny Latimer?" "Where is Tui, and who's the father of her baby?" These questions drive Twin Peaks, The Killing, Broadchurch, and Top of the Lake*, and everyone in those shows is asking them. American Horror Story's questions barely present themselves as such; they're hardly ever articulated aloud. No character knows enough about how their world works to even ask them; nor does AHS stretch the process of answering them into any kind of arc. Take, for example, "Is Violet dead?" Our first hint that the answer is "yes" appears in the beginning of 1.10, "Smoldering Children," in the form of a blowfly infestation, and the clues build up from there: Tate murders the exterminator, implying that he's hidden a body in the crawlspace, and insists that Violet slit her wrists to avoid boarding school and be with him forever. (Which implies that she's alive, I guess?) I would say this all "culminates" in the discovery of Violet's body, complete with blowfly-filled mouth—but this doesn't feel like a reveal, maybe because we aren't even equipped to wonder whether or not Violet's alive until minutes before we're about to find out. Later in "Smoldering Children," we find out that she's in fact been dead for four episodes. "Violet: dead or alive?" could have been a throughline between episodes 6 and 10, but by 10, I'd forgotten that she even overdosed.

*Also last week, I watched the first season of The Fall, which isn't engineered around such a question, at least not for the viewer; we know who the killer is from the first episode, and spend half of our time with him.

The characters on AHS are figuring out the rules of their world, or solutions to the show's mysteries, but like I said, this process isn't really the plot of the show—and the rules, when they are revealed, aren't clearly articulated, or seem arbitrary. If you die on the property, you return as a ghost. Ghosts can reveal themselves or not; apparently, they can also change their appearance: Nora Montgomery, the original owner's wife, has an exit wound in the back of her head, and Nursing Student #2 drips with the bathwater she was drowned in, but Moira looks as she did in life moments before she was shot, or like an older version of herself, with one milky-blue blind eye (herself if she'd survived?). Hayden and the Black Dahlia both present as their sexy, pre-murdered selves. (Rule #387: If you were a hot woman, you get to stay that way? And you also get hornier?) Some ghosts know they're dead; some remember their deaths; some do not.

Not only are the rules inconsistent, but, as I've said, once revealed they don't come to drive the plot, just as neither our nor the characters' uncertainty about them did. The zombies in World War Z have several clearly defined characteristics—they swarm, they're fast, and they're very sensitive to noise. This last becomes relevant when several characters must sneak through the zombie-infested wing of a WHO research lab in total silence; this world's rules shape the stories told within it. On American Horror Story, learning that, for example, the rule that the dead can "kill" each other—as Hayden demonstrates on Travis, Constance's boyfriend—or that they can only be seen if they want to be, doesn't change the way either they or the living behave. Not only are rules inconsistent, backstories change constantly. First, Larry tells Ben that the house drove him to set his family and himself on fire; then we learn that it was actually his wife, after finding out about his and Constance's affair, which doesn't explain his burns; still later we're shown that Tate doused Larry with gasoline and set him alight. This doesn't deepen our understanding of the characters involved, nor does it set any events in motion. Each version of Larry's story has equal weight; they're presented, in the order they were pulled out of the hat, as a strangely impotent "truth," devoid of impact and meaning to characters and viewer alike.

AHS creates numerous opportunities for longer arcs like the mystery of Violet's, which it casually—I might even say defiantly, were it not done as such a seeming afterthought—squanders. Stories that could be long narrative arcs (Violet's death; Mr. Escandarian's plan to buy and tear down the house, leaving its ghosts homeless; Violet's plot to banish Chad and Pat) are introduced and eliminated in a single episodes. Motives that have actually been at play all along—it was Tate's "mommy issues" that led him to kill Chad and Patrick when it looked like they weren't going to adopt a baby, and to rape Vivien, wearing the rubber suit—are revealed as an afterthought. When Nora Montgomery finally gets her baby—an event that's been half-heartedly presented as the endgame of the show—she's exasperated by the baby's crying, and observes tiredly to Vivien that she was probably never meant to be a mother. Stories are told out of order: Chad and Pat decorate for Halloween; rubber-suited man appears to drown Chad in an apple-bobbing bucket; Chad buys the rubber suit only to be rejected by Pat, Tate drags the still living Chad down to the basement, then stages his "suicide." The order in which these events are presented seems as arbitrary as the house's rules.

None of the above are necessarily bad things. Rules are inconsistent; backstories change; stories are told in seemingly random order; opportunities for long narrative arcs are offhandedly squandered—but the show isn't trying to be a traditional linear story. So what is it trying to do? How does it hold my attention? People being stabbed, shot, cut in half, hit in the face with shovels? Seen through Douglas Rushkoff's lens, these incidents look like Ryan Murphy's way of trying to hook the remote-holding viewer: shocking, attention-getting moments that exist out of time. These moments aren't why I watch the show, though (on Netflix, I might add, with no remote—but with like six other tabs open, I guess...). Murphy has created a place in which I want to spend time. I was just talking to Jeremy about this last night—how, though J.K. Rowling has said she didn't edit Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix as much as she'd like to have, that's exactly why it was my favorite book. I would have read about Harry clipping his toenails and whether wizarding toenail clippers had some way of stopping the nails from flying everywhere or of collecting them when you were finished. I just wanted to spend as much time at Hogwarts as possible.

And that's kind of how I feel about AHS. For all its gore, Murphy has created a strangely endearing world. Moira and Constance stand in a second-floor window, looking ruefully out; Chad, Moira, and the rest of the ghosts walk resignedly back to the house the morning after Halloween. "I feel like I'm doomed for all eternity to be trapped in an unhappy, adulterous relationship, working on this goddamn house which will never be just the way I want it," Chad complains. "You are," Moira says.

My favorite scenes are the ones like this where the ghosts interact, often commenting on their situation; Violet, Tate, Chad and Patrick arguing in the baby's room, in a manner that's both vicious and half-hearted—Chad warns Violet that her twin siblings' birth "might get ugly... Were you a C-section? Is there an existing zipper we might use?"; Chad comments resentfully to Tate that "Maybe you should've taken a few minutes to get to know me before sticking a fireplace poker up my ass." I started this post by comparing AHS, via Rushkoff, to Heroes and Lost, but maybe it's more like The Real World, another show that Rushkoff mentions, in which "a group of good-looking eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds and [are put] in an apartment together with dozens of cameras rolling twenty-four hours a day. Any moment is as potentially significant as any other. It's up to the editors to construct something like narrative, after the fact." Replace "eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds" with "ghosts"—24 of them—half of whom have killed the other half—including bickering, adulterous couples, school shooters, and horny maids—and... yeah, that sounds about right.

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