THE PENTAGRAM OF TRUST
“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, 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.’”
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.
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’]