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Dylan McDermott (left) and Denis O'Hare in an episode of "American Horror Story." (Ray Mickshaw/FX)
Dylan McDermott (left) and Denis O'Hare in an episode of "American Horror Story." (Ray Mickshaw/FX)

John Doyle: Television

American Horror Story: Scary TV for adults only Add to ...

Oooh, it’s gonna be scary. And messy, weirdly funny and a bit discombobulating. But worth your attention.

Here’s the deal – I draw your attention to the arrival tonight of American Horror Story, on the new channel FX Canada, at 9 p.m. It’s the loopiest, most intriguing show of this TV season.

Now, let me rephrase that in contemporary Toronna parlance: “Listen, harpies, don’t you freakin’ know that I’m John freakin’ Doyle, the TV critic of this paper?” That’s how you get someone’s attention hereabouts these days. Sometimes, it even works. Though you might have to wait 15 minutes.

Previous columns by John Doyle

Anyway, American Horror Story is a drama created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who brought us Glee and Nip/Tuck. As Glee is sunny, Horror Story is dark. And maniacally so. It is a stew of derivative ingredients, mainly from mainstream American horror movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, but given a spicy jolt of originality and wit. Some of it doesn’t make a blind bit of sense and some of it only makes sense once you accept a bewilderingly devious chronology and mind-boggling plot twists. Throughout, there is a vaguely menacing tone that transcends the shenanigans.

First, we are introduced to a house in Los Angeles. Terrible things happen. This is in the past. Then we meet Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), a psychiatrist, his wife, Vivien (Connie Britton), and their moody teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga). We learn that Ben’s been a very, very bad man. While Connie was recovering from a miscarriage, he had a fling with a student, in his home, and Connie discovered him in the act.

So they move to L.A. and this house that pretty much has “run for your lives!” written on it. Ben starts seeing patients and first up is Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), who is insane and has the hots for Violet. And then there’s the neighbour. That’s Constance (Jessica Lange), who talks in a Southern belle drawl and bosses everybody with aplomb. For company she has her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome. Adelaide keeps herself busy showing up at odd moments and announcing, “You’re going to die.”

Eventually, along comes a guy named Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare), who used to live in the house and murdered his wife and daughter there before starting a fire, because a voice told him to do it. Half of Larry’s face was destroyed in the fire and he's now dying of brain cancer. Or so he says.

Adding a peculiar allure to events is Moira (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under), the housekeeper, who just turns up and says she’s been the housekeeper for a long time. When Vivien looks at Moira, she sees a middle-aged woman of grim appearance. When Ben looks at Moira he sees a twentysomething redhead (Alexandra Breckinridge) in a too-short French-maid outfit with stockings and a garter belt. Did I mention it was discombobulating? I could tell you more, but I’ll only say that the scenes with Conroy and Lange are mesmerizing in their arch appreciation for the material.

American Horror Story (two consecutive episodes air tonight) is the most sensationally good but maddening drama in some time. Part homage to the staples of horror movies, part homage to the strength of women (the male characters are obnoxious), it’s an elliptical, multi-layered drama about a family falling apart. The past – both near and distant – creeps in and out of everyday problems. The viewer is dumbfounded at first but eventually understands that the characters can see only surface horror and that some truly monstrous forces are at work – forces of selfishness, rage and egomania. This is adults-only TV, a family drama on acid, infused with disturbing eroticism. This ain’t no ordinary Halloween fun. I’m the TV freakin’ critic and I’m telling you.

The arrival of FX Canada – available now on Rogers and various other cable providers – marks a welcome addition to the Canadian TV landscape. The offbeat comedy Wilfrid airs on FX at 11 p.m. Monday night, followed by The League, a partly improvised comedy about the lives and times of people in a fantasy football league. Tomorrow we get to see Sons of Anarchy, starting from the opening episode (FX Canada, 10 p.m.). More on those later.

Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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