Best New TV Show of 2013: Orange is the New Black

January 12, 2014 in Best Of, Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

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Last year was a huge year in television. We witnessed the end of arguably the greatest TV drama of all time, Breaking Bad, said bye to the crying of Carrie Mathison in Homeland, and bid a fond farewell to TV’s favourite serial killer despite Dexter‘s stinky ending, while popular shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones continued to dominate the ratings.

Out of loyalty and stubbornness I also continued tuning into The Mentalist (which finally brought a merciful end to the Red John arc) and Revenge (which has reached its rinse and repeat cycle), both of which are on a downward spiral of quality, as well as one of the most underrated and compelling shows still on TV, The Good Wife. I also watched some more of American Horror Story but it just got a little too much for me, I guess.

Of course, I also sampled an assortment of new shows, some of which I abandoned after a few episodes and others which I saw to the end of the first season.

There’s Bates Motel, the modern re-imagining of Psycho and the origins of Norman Bates starring Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. I really enjoyed Hannibal, based on the adventures of Dr Lecter (played by aptly named actor Mads Mikkelsen) and Claire Danes’ real-life husband (Hugh Dancy), and thought House of Cards was one of the best-made and best-acted shows thanks to the talents of Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara. I tried out retro spy show The Americans with Keri Russell and the gritty Liev Shreiber drama Ray Donovan, as well as the highly anticipated Marvel’s Agents of Shield, a poor man’s made-for-TV Avengers. I saw some potential in Karl Urban’s Almost Human, about android police offers, and found Michael Sheen’s Masters of Sex provocatively brilliant. I also loved the Canadian sci-fi Orphan Black, starring the insanely talented Tatiana Maslany as a bunch of clones.

But of all the new shows I watched in 2013, one stood above the rest, and that was Orange is the New Black, another brilliant Netflix series that came out of nowhere to suck in like crack cocaine. I never thought I would be attracted to a show about a women’s prison, but Orange is the New Black demonstrates once again that nothing beats good writing.

It’s an interesting premise that makes you feel like it could happen to anyone, including you. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who just got engaged to the guy who screwed the pie in American Pie (Jason Biggs) is sent to prison for a year for something she did a decade ago for a former girlfriend (yes, she was a lesbian). The show follows Piper as she is introduced to a most fascinating prison environment and must learn her place in the hierarchy — both with the warden and guards as well as the inmates — in order to survive, while also endeavouring to keep her relationship with pie guy alive on the outside. Oh, and the ex-girlfriend who put her there (played by a magnetic Laura Prepon) just happens to be in the same prison.

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Supposedly based on a true story (it’s based on a book of the same name), Orange is the New Blaccould have been a gritty prison drama, but instead it’s one of the wittiest and funniest shows on TV. The writing is so sharp and tight, with each episode having clear and specific plot lines and almost always ending on some kind of unexpected event, insightful life lesson or cliffhanger, or all of the above. I’m not surprised it’s the new project of Weeds creator Jenji Kohan because it has the same kind of quirkiness and edginess, where you constantly find yourself shocked and amused at the same time while also caring deeply for the characters.

Speaking of which, one of the things that makes the show so fantastic is the characters. Though the show centers around Piper, each episode focuses on a different inmate, each with their own unique personalities, backgrounds and stories. We have these stereotypes of what women prisoners are supposed to be like, but this show treats them like real, multi-dimensional people with real and complex issues, and somehow finds way to have fun with that at the same time without coming across as being insensitive. There’s the woman who runs the kitchen, and effectively, the prison; the woman known as Crazy Eyes because, well, she has crazy eyes; the transsexual hairdresser who is still married to his wife; the Latino inmate who enters a relationship with a prison guard; and her pathetic mother, who is in there with her. That’s just a small sample of the types of characters the show chooses to explore every episode, and that doesn’t even include the correctional officers who are very fascinating themselves, including the nasty and cringingly hilarious sexual deviant known as “Pornstache”.

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Each week offers something new and exciting through these character backstories while keeping the main and other minor story arcs in progression. The show employs a clever flashback structure that really helps audiences get into the minds of the characters and have the ability to change the way you think of them in a hurry. Everyone has their own secrets, hardships and struggles, and it’s all gradually and strategically revealed to us over the course of the 13-episode first season. The carefully controlled way the show unfolds, complete with ample servings of twists and turns, is yet another testament to the wonderful writers on the show.

The performances are outstanding. I had only seen Schilling in the much maligned Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Lucky One, with Zac Efron, and I didn’t think much of her then. But she is great in this show, displaying an adorable mix of naivete angst, fear, vulnerability, strength and compassion. Her chemistry with Biggs is also surprisingly good, even though she looks older. If there is a complaint, it’s that she can be really stupid sometimes, but I suppose that’s how they create the drama, so it’s more the fault of the character than Schilling’s acting. Everyone’s really good, but the standout for me is Laura Prepon, who will sadly only be in four episodes in the second season, apparently due to some crazy Scientology reason (yes, she an Tom Cruise believe in the same god). Apart from looking really foxy, Prepon just has this amazing screen presence and demeanor that makes her seems more composed than everybody else all the time.

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So there you have it, my pick for the best new series of 2013. Orange is the New Black is one of those rare shows where both the comedy and the drama are equally effective and mesh together so well that the tone never feels uneven, and every episode offers something new so it never feels repetitive. Anyway, I can’t wait for season 2, which should come out hopefully during the US summer this year.

PS: I gave up on Under the Dome even before I watched the first episode after only feedback I got from multiple sources was “rubbish”.

PPS: One new 2014 show I am really forward to is True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, an anthology series about two detectives trying to track down a serial killer. First ep is due out Jan. 12.

Breaking Bad finale: perfect end to a perfect show

October 1, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

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(Warning: it would be a dick move for me not to mention that there are potential MINOR SPOILERS ahead)

Last night I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad, episode 62, the aptly titled “Felina” — an anagram for finale and representing the three chemical elements Fe (Iron = “blood”), Li (Lithium = “meth”) and Na (Sodium = “tears”). See? Even the title is genius.

While Felina is probably not the best episode of the series (that title could go to “Ozymandius” or one of the other season 5 episodes), it is the best ending of any TV series I have ever seen — no hyperbole. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that’s as perfect as any that has ever been on television. Just about every loose end was tied up with the right amount of neatness and open-endedness. It flowed nicely, in pace and in tone, with the rest of the series, without trying too hard to be drastic or different so it could “go out with a bang”. There was nothing outrageous or jarring about it at all. A show like Lost overstayed its welcome and trapped itself with too many unanswerable loose ends, whereas every little thing that happened in Breaking Bad was planned well in advance and with an explanation or resolution in mind. The difference is startling. It’s a weighty affirmation of what can happen when a TV series has a finite life and brilliant writers who know precisely where they want the show to go and how things will turn out.

Having been through some horrible series finales in recent years (Lost, Gossip Girl, Dexter), my expectations for Felina were kept in check. I avoided all commentary and predictions and didn’t think much about it myself, wanting to go in with a clean slate and the mentality of just going along with the ride. The only things I expected to happen were that Jesse would live and Walt would die, though I wasn’t really sure about either.

The introductory scene with Walt in the snow-covered car set the pace for the rest of the episode. With so many loose ends to tie up, I had expected it to burst out of the gate and sprint all the way to the finish, but instead show creator Vince Gilligan let his audience know that the show was going to finish on its own terms. I had expected the show to start winding things up with about six episodes to go because it felt like there was so much that still had to happen, but it remained steadfast in its conviction and continued to progress at its finely tuned, intentional speed, picking up at times but cooling down at others while maintaining the tension all the way through. Then I thought it had to start winding up with five episodes left, then four, then three, then two. When we hit the final episode I decided there was going to be no way all the loose ends would be tied up and resigned myself to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

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But somehow, like magic, the loose ends were dealt with, one by one: his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (in a brilliant, clever scene), Lydia (that chamomile-plus-soy-milk-drinking bitch), Skyler (plus, in a way, Hank) and Flynn (the epic scene with Skyler was the whole crux of the episode, or even the entire show, IMO), the crazy Nazis (including Todd, hands down the creepiest character in the whole show), and finally, Jesse. The only question outstanding was whether Huell was still waiting in that motel room!

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The amazing thing about Felina was that there was really nothing hugely surprising, and yet you couldn’t say that anything in it was expected. All the flash forwards from earlier episodes — the ones that sparked a cascade of speculation online — were catered for, and none of the resolutions felt forced or contrived. There were of course some implausible things in the episode (and these will no doubt be discussed at length online), and some people might think the ending was too neat for a show like this, but it was the satisfying conclusion that the audience — and Walter White — deserved.

Vince Gilligan said the idea of the show was to turn Mr Chips in Scarface — and he essentially achieved that several episodes out from the finale. The last couple of episodes were really about Heisenberg’s redemption — despite all the horrible things he had done, he had to be the antihero we rooted for until the end. There was no turning back for Walter White, but he wasn’t simply going to limp off into the sunset with a whimper (like Dexter). He’s the one who knocks, and we better damn remember it.

I intend to watch it again soon, but right now there is nothing I would change about how Breaking Bad finished up.

If the first six episodes of season five were good enough to win it the Best Series Emmy (I was surprised this was the first time the show won it), then it should be a foregone conclusion that the last six episodes would win next year’s award too, as well acting gongs for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and either Aaron Paul or Dean Norris. That said, it could be difficult given that the show would have lost a lot of momentum by this time next year. (I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it turned out to be a good idea to split the final season in two because, let’s face it, it was really like two separate seasons.)

How will Breaking Bad be remembered? As the greatest TV show ever? That’s what a lot of people are saying, which is astounding considering it just ended and these kinds of superlatives usually start in retrospect years down the track. Season five received 99/100 on Metacritic, the highest rating ever, and it makes you wonder which douchebag it was that prevented it from getting full marks. Has there ever been a show that is so cinematic, so beautifully shot, so dramatically epic, so wonderfully written, so amazingly performed and so perfectly ended? I can’t think of another.

I believe Breaking Bad is a show where all the stars aligned at the right time and everything just fell into place. AMC was brave enough (ans smart enough) to pick up a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Bryan Cranston fell into the role of a lifetime. Aaron Paul, who was supposed to be killed off in the first couple of episodes, became arguably the second most important character on the show and established himself as one of the best young actors of this generation. The supporting roles were cast perfectly — especially Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut). And from every interview I’ve seen or read, the cast and crew all loved each other and the chemistry (no pun intended) onscreen was undeniable.

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It’s a strange comparison to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. My favourite comedy of all-time, Seinfeld, is another one of those shows where things kind of just fell into place. Even when things go wrong they are somehow right. The cast always refer to season three’s “Parking Garage” episode when they realised they had something special going on. The premise was that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer couldn’t find their car in a parking garage and spend the entire episode looking for it. The episode concludes when they finally locate it, but when Kramer tries to start the car it stalls, ending things on a perfect note and providing possibly the biggest laugh of the entire episode. The thing is, the car stalling was never part of the script — it actually happened. (Oh, and let’s not forget, Cranston’s previous role of a lifetime was as dentist and infamous re-gifter Tim “schtickle of fluoride” Whatley on Seinfeld).

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

This kind of good fortune can be found in Felina too. I was watching the post-episode chat show Talking Bad, and guests talked about the brilliance of a tiny reflection of Anna Gunn’s face (she has her back to the camera) in her epic scene with Bryan Cranston. When I watched it I thought it was intentional too, but as it turned out Vince Gilligan (who directed the final episode) had no idea until his editor pointed it out to him. Similarly, the scene when Walt took off his watch and placed it on top of the payphone has been dissected by fans, most of whom point out that the watch was a gift from Jesse and it represented Walt finally letting him go. But as Vince Gilligan explained in Talking Bad, that scene was added purely for continuity purposes because Walt was not wearing the watch in the flash forward scene from earlier in the season. The show is so good that even the unintentional things are being interpreted as intentional brilliance.

Now that the show is finally over a lot of cable subscriptions will be cancelled, TVs will be thrown out and illegal internet downloads will drop dramatically. TV without Breaking Bad is frightening because it’s likely everything we watch for a while will seem bland and lacking in awesomeness by comparison. Nonetheless, we should be grateful that we were able to experience something so close to perfection at all. Thank you Vince Gilligan. Thank you Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest of the cast. Thank you Breaking Bad. Life (in front of the TV, anyway) will go on, but it won’t be the same without you.

PS: I’ll finish up with Grantland’s wicked in memoriam tribute to the show. It contains spoilers from the final episode — you’ve been warned.

Dexter Finale: Everyone’s favourite serial killer limps off with a whimper

September 24, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

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It’s kinda sad that I watched the series finale of Dexter as the appetizer to last night’s main course, the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. I didn’t watch it first because I wanted to see it more — it was because I had accepted that, given the way this final season 8 has played out, the ending of Dexter would be an inevitable disappointment. And if I had watched (the newly crowned best series Emmy winner) Breaking Bad first, the contrast between the quality of the two shows would have been even more depressing.

NOTE: There will be spoilers about the final episode in this rant: you have been warned.

I first got into Dexter while the show was in its fourth season (2009). I had heard rave reviews about it from a friend — a serial killer protagonist with a sense of righteousness working as a Miami Metro blood splatter analyst — and decided to start right from the beginning, binge watching the first three seasons in a matter of days. As it turned out, season four was probably the apex of the entire series thanks to John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer, arguably Dexter’s biggest nemesis. By the time I got through season four, which had one of the best finales ever (with Dexter coming home to find his wife dead and his son in a pool of blood), I was convinced Dexter was one of the best shows on TV.

What was so good about it? For starters, the writing was amazing (emphasis on WAS). Dexter was charismatic, awkward, hilarious and lovable. He killed people who deserved it and you rooted for him to get away with it. The supporting characters were awesome too. Masuka, the pervy lab geek, provided a lot of laughs, and Dexter’s sister, Deb, was a foul-mouthed breath of fresh air. The fact that Dexter had to maintain his disguise as a family man added a whole other dimension to his character. And most of all, the villains were formidable and made you feel as though Dexter was in real danger. That was the most appealing and compulsive aspect of the show — that he was constantly hunting killers while also being hunted by killers and law enforcement; he was regularly pushed into a corner and forced to make difficult decisions,  leading to cliffhanger after cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, when you reach a height like the show’s makers did in season four, the only place to go is down. Season five was a bit of a downer despite the introduction of Dexter’s first partner in crime, Lumen (Julia Stiles), but it was still compelling television for the most part. Season six, to be honest, is a complete blur. I don’t remember much about it except that it starred Colin Hanks, son of Tom. Season seven was more of the same despite an attempt to change things up introducing a new killer love interest (pun intended) in Hannah McKay and having Deb in on the secret. You would think that would keep the show interesting but the changes never had the intended effect as the show kept getting flatter. The only good thing about the whole season was killing off the annoying LaGuerta.

And so as we ventured into season eight, the final season, there was some hope (albeit low expectations) that the show would give Dexter Morgan the sendoff he deserves.  By this stage, Dexter had become one of those shows that outstayed its welcome and only hung on because of loyal fans like myself. I did the same thing for Smallville, which was pretty much trash by the time it hobbled into the 10th season, and I stubbornly kept watching the final seasons of Prison Break (despite it becoming laughable), Heroes (which got so bad it was abruptly cancelled), and to a lesser extent Lost (the ending of which I am still trying to figure out).

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Season eight, as it turned out, was one of the worst, if not the worst seasons of the show. It was as though the writers were as sick of the show as we were and decided to just get it over with. Phone it in. The story wandered aimlessly, directionless, unsure of what it wanted to do or say. It felt like they were winging it, episode to episode. Was this final season about Dexter finally letting go of his Dark Passenger? Was it about him becoming undone? Was it about him coming to terms with who he is? Was it about love and sacrifice? Was it about all of these things or none of these things? No one could tell.

The structure was all over the place. We started off with Deb reeling from killing LaGuerta and Dexter trying to keep everything together. He then meets Charlotte Rampling, who reveals herself as the woman who essentially created him and his code. Quinn starts a relationship with Jamie, the babysitter. Masuka discovers he has a daughter (this strand never got resolved — in fact, Masuka is left out almost completely towards the end). Hannah McKay returns. There’s some kid who reminds Dexter of himself. And as it turns out the final villain is Rampling’s son, who doesn’t even appear in the season until the final episodes and is a bit of a piss-weak ultimate boss.

My head hurts from thinking about all the things that went horribly wrong in the final episode:

1. Deb’s arbitrary death — she dies because someone important has to die the finale; I just wish she could have had a better send off, rather than succumbing to some lame post-surgery complication and being carried out from the hospital and dumped into the ocean, somehow without anyone seeing it.

2. Batista and Quinn doing basically nothing. I can’t even remember seeing Masuka in the episode.

3. Saxon, the final big boss, going down in the lamest way possible — first being arrested without a struggle, and then killed with a pen. I feel bad for him.

4. Dexter somehow keeping his Miami Metro ID despite no longer working for them, and using it to first trick a stewardess at the airport and then getting into Saxon’s cell to kill him. And then inexplicably gets away with it.

5. What was Dexter trying to do in the end? Kill himself or fake his own death? If it was the latter then isn’t driving a boat into a tidal wave a bit too much of a risk?

6. Pretty dick move by Dexter leaving his kid with Hannah. I don’t know who to feel more sorry for.

7. So Dexter’s solution is to let people pretend he is dead and just live out the remainder of his existence in some isolated place like Walter White in a cabin? But as we see in the epilogue, there are still people around, and he is a serial killer by nature, so how does that really solve anything?

8. No humour at all. What made Dexter so great was its dark humour, and the final episode (final episodes, in fact) had none. Waaay too serious.

My theory is that the show began falling apart when Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter split up but were forced to continue playing brother and sister on the show. They are great actors, but the chemistry was off, and since their relationship is the core of the show that affected everything and everyone else. The alternative theory is that the show just went on for too long and the writers got fatigued and ran out of good ideas.

The show’s producers have a different explanation — it was all part of their grand plan.

Nonetheless, I’ll still remember Dexter fondly for the first four seasons. I just wish it could have been more like Breaking Bad, a show that knows exactly what it’s doing and knows when to wrap things up. Can’t wait for next week’s finale!

PS: I’ll finish off with this legendary season eight promo, which was probably better than the entire season put together.

Review: The Walking Dead (Season 2)

April 23, 2012 in Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

I got into The Walking Dead when it was still a comic book. Years ago a friend had lent me the first few volumes, which I enjoyed but didn’t think was anything too special (could be attributed to my bias against American comics). When I heard about the TV series, however, I became very keen because I knew it had tremendous potential.

Season 1 of The Walking Dead was great television. Anything with zombies makes pretty good television anyway, but it’s not often that a post-apocalyptic world depicted on TV is so dreary, bleak and horrifying. It had a love triangle, some volatile characters and plenty of terrific deaths (both meanings intended).

Season 2 came with a lot of expectations. What were they going to do this time that could top the solid first season?

Having now watched all of season 2 in its entirety, I have the feeling that perhaps my desire to like the show is greater than how much I really like it. The dark mood of the first season was maintained well, but significant portions of it felt somewhat repetitive and was extraordinarily slow for a show aimed at zombie lovers.

It’s strange, considering when you list the main story arcs of the season it sounds pretty awesome:

  • The little girl, Sophia, goes missing, and the gang split up and set out to find her;
  • Rick’s son, Carl, is accidentally shot and almost dies — then becomes a bit of a douche;
  • The gang find refuge at a ranch owned by the enigmatic Hershel;
  • Glenn gets a lady friend;
  • Daryl grows a heart — for a while;
  • Lori gets second thoughts about the pregnancy;
  • Andrea goes half mental; and
  • Shane goes full mental.

This doesn’t even mention all the excellent twists and turns, such as Sophia’s fate, Hershel’s little secret, the gang of dangerous survivors they run into — and of course, the mega big huge revelation of the finale, not to mention the first appearance of one of the comic’s coolest and most memorable characters. Oh, and the deaths of key characters were pretty shocking too.

Core cast of season 2

And so it baffles me while for stretches throughout this second season I found the pace to be excruciatingly slow. Part of it probably stems from the fact that the majority of the episodes take place on Hershel’s farm, meaning there is very little movement. I admire the efforts to make this a hard-hitting drama focused on the human characters and all, but to be honest, I just wanted to see more crazy zombies.

Is that wrong? I mean, let’s face it, the zombie scenes are still the most thrilling — by far — and at times during season 2 I almost forgot they existed. I suppose the point was to show that the humans are more dangerous than the walkers, but humans, for the most part, aren’t quite as exciting as decomposing cannibals. Not to say that they should go overboard and turn this into a video game because the drama is what drives this show, but slightly more balance would have been welcome. It’s really their own fault for making the zombies so wonderfully frightening — kudos to the make-up and special effects team, by the way — which only made me want more of them.

Nonetheless, judging from the final scene, it appears season 3 could be an explosive and very bumpy ride — depending on how closely they follow the comic. Season 2 was relatively strong but it could have been a lot better, in my humble opinion, had they hastened things a little. Perhaps sensing what a commercial success the series is they decided to drag it out for as long as possible.

In any case, I hope the Governor makes an appearance in season 3.

Rating: B

Review: American Horror Story (Season 1)

January 23, 2012 in Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

It’s hard enough to find a decent 90 to 120-minute horror movie these days, which is why I was highly sceptical about American Horror Story, an entire 13-episode TV supernatural horror-themed series dedicated to a single, continuous storyline.

There’s a very good reason why we haven’t seen anything like this show before — because it’s bloody hard to do well.  For starters, it needs to be genuinely scary and “realistic” within the confines of its own universe, an almost impossible task in itself.  It also needs to sustain the interest of the audience for the entire season, which is difficult without the luxury of having a different story with different characters each week.

This is probably why I can’t think of any such US shows in recent years off the top of my head.  The Walking Dead is horror with a single arc but it’s not supernatural.  Supernatural has a core story arc but most weeks it’s a different story. The Ghost Whisperer is similar and hardly qualifies as horror.  From my memory bank at least, I think I have to go as far as American Gothic (1995) to find something with a vaguely similar concept — and as I recall that disintegrated into pure crap just a few episodes in and was cancelled after a short-lived season.  It’s just too difficult.

Amazingly, American Horror Story delivers.  It’s without a doubt the scariest TV show around and is right up there as one of the most intriguing.  And no, it does not even try to rely on cheap “boo” scares like most horror movies these days.  The show succeeds with tight scripts, an A-list cast and a genuinely twisted plot with even more twisted characters, delivering a continued, insidious sense of dread and regularly leaving a nasty taste in your mouth.

I would also call it quite a daring show, in the sense that it doesn’t hold back.  It’s mean and dirty and highly sexual (though not at all explicit or gratuitous).  There’s plenty of rage, jealously, lust and an unquenchable thirst for revenge threaded throughout the series and every episode is filled with murder and brutal violence.  It doesn’t shy away from things such as rape, murdering babies, horrifying deformities, dismemberment, disembowelment and macabre experiments — on both the living and the dead.  Because of its willingness to push the limits, there are lots of excellent surprises, none of which are easily guessable.

The characters are also incredibly juicy and memorable — every one of them has stories to tell and secrets to hide, but the mysteries are not frustratingly concealed all the way until the end — instead, they are slowly revealed as the layers are gradually peeled back, rewarding audiences for sticking with it.

The clever thing about this series is that each season is dedicated to a single ghost story.  Season 1 is all about the Harmon family, who move from Boston to LA into the “Murder House”, which is, of course, haunted.  The story begins and ends in Season 1, meaning that there is little risk of it dragging on unnecessarily or spiralling into inevitable crappiness.  Season 2, which has already been picked up, will be about an entirely different family and location, though certain members of the cast may return in different roles.

Speaking of cast members, American Horror Story boasts an impressive ensemble.  The Harmon couple is played by Dylan McDermott (best known as Bobby Donnell from The Practice) and Connie Britton (whom I am less familiar with but has been in Spin City and Friday Night Lights), with young Taissa Farmiga (Vera Farmiga’s significantly younger sister) as their teenage daughter.  Other regulars include Jessica Lange, Evan Peters (almost didn’t recognise him — he’s the nerdy kid with the camera from Never Back Down and its sequel), Denis O’Hare (True Blood), Kate Mara (Rooney’s older sister — who coincidentally starred with Britton in the 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street remake) and Zachary Pinto (Sylar from Heroes).

Everyone, human or ghost, does their job well, with the standouts being the youngsters Evans and Farmiga, though the one that steals just about every scene is Jessica Lange, who deservedly won a Golden Globe for her performance as the  mysterious and always-present neighbour.  She’s just such a fantastically twisted and tragic character and it was a thrill watching Lange play it to perfection.

Of course, as a supernatural horror, it is also much easier to find problems with the show.  It will obviously be harder for “sceptics” to appreciate it (some “believers” might also be turned off  as it flouts conventional “ghost” wisdom), and it’s not hard to poke holes and point out believability issues here and there.  But if you can keep an open mind and just go along for the ride, chances are you’ll find it as engrossing and captivating as I did.  I’ll definitely be looking out for Season 2.

Rating: B+

PS: Interestingly, American Horror Story is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of Glee.  But I guess in a way it makes perfect sense — only people who could come up with a show as sickening as Glee could have come up with something as twisted as this show.

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