Eye on Emmy: How FX's American Horror Story Pushed the Miniseries Envelope to the Max

“Ryan basically presented it to me by saying, ‘This is going to be like nothing you’ve ever done before,’” says Britton, who came off a five-year run as Friday Night Lights’ beloved Tami Taylor. “And not only that, it was actually going to turn what I’d been doing on its ear a bit, going from this wonderful TV marriage to a completely damaged one.”

“Everybody who came onto the show had come off something that was very opposite,” Murphy notes. McDermott was best known for his work as an estimable legal eagle on The Practice; on Horror Story,American Horror Story Emmy Nominations 2012 his Ben Harmon crosses many a line (and isn’t above entombing a mistress beneath a gazebo). Conroy had followed up her turn as Six Feet Under’s emotionally stunted matriarch with light-hearted appearances on How I Met Your Mother; here, she was a housekeeper full of secrets (including a younger, vixenish visage, and the none-too-small fact that she was dead).

“I told everyone, ‘Look, this is cable, and I’m interested in doing the opposite of what I’ve been doing on Glee. I want to push envelopes,’” Murphy relates. “We all just wanted to do something very bold and risk-taking, so it was certainly a leap of faith.”

Lange, meanwhile, was a premiere get, an unlikely suspect boasting two Academy Awards, an Emmy Award and four Golden Globes on her mantel. As a steel magnolia with a questionable value set, she immediately immersed herself into the role of Constance, the Harmons’ nosy/nasty Southern-fried neighbor.

“When we got Jessica,” recalls Murphy, “I felt, ‘OK, this clearly sends a message that this is an elevated thing.’”

RELATED | Eye on Emmy: Jessica Lange on Playing American Horror Story‘s Hell of a Belle and Season 2′s ‘Wild Ride’

However, it’s not a project without vivid jolts of perversity. McDermott, even eight months after the scene first aired, can’t help but chuckle when he recalls one of the pilot’s more memorable moments. “Any time you have to masturbate and cry at the same time, you certainly have to have a lot of trust in the creator and the director — and Ryan, you just naturally trust him,” the actor notes.

That widespread trust in turn fueled fearless performances. “If you question it all the time, you’ll look ridiculous, so you really have to go all in with a show like this,” McDermott attests. “And that’s why people responded.”

Respond people did. It was last summer when a theater-style screening of the pilot for members of the Television Critics Association first got the buzz going. Going in, little was known about the project save for its pedigree, the assembly of on-camera talent and a sliver of plot. (Murphy readily admits, “I didn’t really want to tell people where we were going.”) Coming out of that first look, many were slack-jawed if not at a loss for words to describe the frenzied first hour.American Horror Story Emmy Nominations 2012

And while some would remain put off by the intensity of the material and/or perceived indulgences of its auteurs, other opinions would gel over time, as the whole began to outweigh the sum of its parts.

Time magazine, for one, went from pegging American Horror Story as an orgy of “fever-dream melodrama” to touting it as a “compelling turn” on scare fare. Similarly, New York magazine simultaneously deemed the series “defiantly absurd” and a “powerful” “allegory about worst-case scenarios.”

“What I think is so brilliant about what Ryan and Brad do is that they have a very distinct vision that is so outside the box. And they have a great talent for bringing that into fruition,” Britton says. “Audiences are really drawn to that. They appreciate being challenged by something they’ve never seen before.”

“It’s an interesting show for me,” Murphy muses, “because the reaction to it where we started versus where we were when [Season 1] ended was very different. I think people really got on board and ‘got’ what we were trying to do.” [CONTINUE TO FINAL PAGE: ‘WHAT’S OLD IS BOO! AGAIN’]

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  1. Sam says:

    Ryan Murphy shows are special alright. They take wonderful actors (Darren Criss, Lea Michele, Connie Britton) and put them in roles that are either obnoxious or bland. Murphy is a sucker of talent.

    • DL says:

      Did you even watch AHS? The show had some phenomenal roles. Violet Harmon, Tate, and Constance were some of the best characters of the television season, and all three actors turned in incredible performances. Lange deserves all the gobs of attention she’s getting for the show, but I’d also really love to see some more buzz for Evan Peters as Tate.

    • ... says:

      “They take wonderful actors (Darren Criss)” LOL. Really? Out of all the talented actors that have worked with Ryan Murphy you listed Darren Criss? And you listed him first?

      • dude says:

        LOL this! I would have put Naya Rivera, Jane Lynch, Mike O’Malley hell, even Chris Colfer (who I think is way over-hyped) before Darren Criss.

      • B says:

        I don’t think it’s possible for there to be anything posted on this website that doesn’t inevitable lead to someone mentioning Glee in the comments. It’s everywhere!

  2. AJ says:

    I really enjoyed this show. Sherlock will win the category though.

  3. Tommy says:

    I have to admit I was enthralled by the show. Not since “Buffy” have I been this addicted to a show… Personally I’m hoping for Emmy gold and not just for Lange.

    • AJ says:

      I agree Lange is hands down the best actress in a Mini-series. I don’t think it can win the category with Sherlock in there though.

  4. Lee says:

    I don’t see how the Emmys can take AHS seriously when it was mostly special effects filled with horror and actors in soap opera situations. I just never felt AHS fully developed its characters. Maybe they didn’t have the time because they were too busy filling it with special effects. But it would’ve been nice to understand the characters better. Why did Ben have an affair with the college student? Was it because his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby? Obviously this stillborn baby was an accident because what parents want to go through child rearing all over again when they’re about to send off their daughter to college? What were the ramifications of this “accident”? I hope Season 2 does a better job developing its characters.

  5. michael says:

    A feminine horror story is not a unique concept. Take torture porn out of the picture and it almost always is favourable to women as a genre. (Scream, Alien, Halloween, ext.) In fact that’s over half of the demographic that watches horror.I love AHS but RM is not exactly breaking the mold here.

    • Miranda says:

      Alien was most certainly favourable to men, not women. Scream was definitely feminine. But I disagree that more of the demographic is women.

  6. Larry says:

    Julianne Moore should win for Game Change as Actress in a TV Movie/MiniSeries.

  7. mia says:

    This struggle is one that genre tv has been having for years now, AHS’s “struggle” isn’t something new.
    If the Emmy academy is going to throw a bone to a genre show, I’d rather it be Fringe which is far superiour to AHS (and yes, I watch both)

  8. Gerald says:

    Ryan Murphy & Co exaggerate so much, I mean the show is good but excellent as he is making it appear. It nothing special, just a carbon copy of many things that have been done before. What makes it stand out is Jessica Lange and her character.

  9. tim says:

    I have to say that the horror is really brutal especially the second episode of home invasion but what comes after with the halloween episodes — you get some of the best acting you can possibly get from every single actor and a culmination that makes it all so good.

  10. h. says:

    The show had potential but lost its way pre rubberman. The only two stand outs were the actors playing Violet and Tate.. But Jessica Lange seems to be getting all the buzz, when in fact they deserve it far more.

  11. Matt says:

    I believe Jessica is entered in the supporting actress race so she won’t be up against Julianne Moore.

  12. cheers says:

    Great article, Matt.

  13. jim says:

    Just bring back Alexandra Breckenridge in the same younger, vixenish roll and I’ll be smiling and happy!!