[Spoilers ahoy! — Ed.]
American Horror Story would never have gotten picked up were it not for the massive success of The Walking Dead. Actually, maybe that’s not true… it was conceived by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk of Glee and Nip/Tuck fame respectively, and if those two guys can’t get a show greenlit these days I don’t rightly know who can. Still, American Horror Story is pretty transparently FX’s attempt to dip into AMC’s bucket of zombie money. Like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story is a serialized horror show, a format which is I think entirely new to American television.* Both have almost ostentatiously high production values. And in both, the horror is used as a backdrop for a disintegrating marriage. So it makes sense to compare the two shows. They are not very much alike, as it turns out, but the differences are revealing.
1) The Walking Dead is about Zombies. American Horror Story is about Ghosts.
In a way, zombies vs. ghosts makes more sense as a monster rivalry than the perennial vampire vs. werewolf grudge match. Zombies are undead bodies without souls.** Ghosts are undead souls without bodies. Zombies work best as a faceless mob. Ghosts have got to be characters (although you can sometimes get by with one or two character ghosts and a faceless mob of hench-ghosts). Ghosts always have something they want. Zombies, not so much — I mean, brains, yeah. But they don’t want them any more than yeast wants sugar. They just tend to put them into their mouths, is all. American Horror Story is shaping up to be a struggle between the human characters and the ghosts (or maybe several different ghost factions). The Walking Dead is a struggle between man and his environment. It would be an error to say that the zombies on The Walking Dead are antagonists. They’re more like a dangerous part of the landscape. Which… oh my god, that’s brilliant. You realize, don’t you, what The Walking Dead feels like more than anything else, with its travelogue, and constant danger, and its slowly decreasing head count? The Call of the Wild. (Note to self: adapt zombie version of Call of the Wild as a screenplay, make millions, waste on hats.)
2) The Walking Dead is about process. American Horror Story is about mystery.
The fact that the supernatural creepy-crawlies on American Horror Story have a plan is a decisive one. We don’t know what the plan is, obviously (because Falchuck and Murphy are not idiots), but the slow revelation of that plan, and the humans’ attempts to struggle against it, will define the future development of the show from here on out. This puts it in the same basic bucket as Heroes, Flash Forward, V and the dozen or so other Lost wannabes that the networks have been foisting on us lately. It’s not a bad thing, exactly, but it sets the show up for the same breed of crushing failure that befell all of those shows. Hey, who knows, maybe American Horror Story will be the one that sticks the landing. But even if it does, it’s a thoroughly conventional way to tell a story, which is kind of hilarious, because on the small scale — well, we’ll get to that. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has no central mystery. Late last season they made a couple of gestures towards trying to figure out what’s causing the plague, but that didn’t go anywhere. The new season has been about a missing little girl and an injured little boy, and whether they’re going to be all right. That’s it. The setting of a zombie apocalypse serves to dignify the most trivial struggles. The best scene so far this season involved everybody hiding under cars while a horde of zombies walked by. It was chilling, and thrilling, and one could be forgiven for missing the fact that it was a scene in which literally nothing happened. Pandagon’s Jesse Taylor was complaining recently that The Walking Dead would be a pretty intensely boring show without the zombies, which I agree with, I guess, but I’m not sure it’s a meaningful criticism. Nobody would watch porn without the sex scenes, but that doesn’t mean porn is bad. It just means it’s bad at being anything other than porn.
The central mystery of The Walking Dead, if you want to call it that, is how long each of the survivors manages to avoid a sudden and pointless death. The problem serial TV has with sustaining large scale arcs (which I treat more fully here), doesn’t apply in this case, because sudden pointless death is always going to be, uh, sudden, and, like, pointless. Not something you can arc to, in other words.
More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that the non-horror part of The Walking Dead‘s narrative (i.e. the disintegrating marriage) takes place in the same closure-free zone. Rick and Lori’s problems don’t involve big crazy betrayals that they need to get past, or grand gestures designed to fix all of their problems. She’s keeping a secret from him, sure, but imagine if that came out. Would it matter? She thought he was dead at the time, and besides, there are bigger fish to fry, where by fish I mean “zombies” and by fry I mean “trying to eat you.” Rick and Lori are on the rocks because they’re under an almost unimaginable amount of stress, which, while not conducive to narrative tension, is a lot more realistic. The “mystery” about their relationship is not whether it can be saved, but whether it can be sustained. Crucial difference. Now compare that to American Horror Story, with its kinky sex, and its tapestry of lies, and its melodramatic confrontations, and its mistress buried under the gazebo.
3) The Walking Dead is realist. American Horror Story is surrealist.
On the small scale, American Horror Story is unapologetically weird. Uncanny supernatural goings on are par for the course with a ghost story, but the visual rhetoric is strange and choppy in a way that has nothing to do with the ghosts, or at least nothing directly to do with the ghosts, although it’s clearly meant to contribute to the same mood. The performances skate on the edge of the ludicrous. Scenes cut off before their logical ending point, and we’re left to wonder whether the characters are losing hours of their lives, or whether the show just skipped forward in time like every other show does. The soundtrack is straight out of Psycho, and I don’t mean it’s a pastiche: they actually licensed Herrmann’s scores to Psycho, Vertigo, and Twisted Nerve, and not always the recognizable themes either — they pull out some deep cuts. The overall effect is arty, but also surprisingly campy. The horror, the sexuality, and even the melodrama are all played with a generous wink to the audience. And all of these elements — supernatural creepiness, jarring editing, overdone aesthetics, referential soundtrack, irony — are mutually reinforcing, bouncing and building on and off each other.
The Walking Dead can’t get away with ANY of that. In order for the zombies to be an environmental hazard rather than a supernatural antagonist, they need to be presented as believably as possible. Which means that there can’t be any non-zombie supernatural elements to the show. And the characters need to act as much as possible like real people would act in these circumstances — the performances on The Walking Dead do get a little melodramatic at times, but in the context of that show this comes off as an annoying failure, not an aesthetic choice. And the filmmaking techniques need to be conventional — you can’t sell your characters as trapped by zombies and running out of time if you don’t establish a firm sense of spatial and temporal continuity. And you certainly can’t get away with ironic references that call attention to the fictional nature of your story. American Horror Story is primarily about creating an aesthetic surface. The Walking Dead is trying to make a window that looks into a fictional world.
Any five minutes of American Horror Story is going to be more interesting to look at and listen to than any five minutes of The Walking Dead (and that includes the zombie attacks). And on paper, the characters are more interesting. But The Walking Dead is, at least for now, a better show and a more ambitious one. It’s not just that doing a realist horror story is surprising. It’s that realism of any kind is so rare on American TV that it ends up seeming like the more radical choice.
* I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think so. Buffy and Angel were not really horror. They got off scary episodes occasionally, but that wasn’t the point. Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt weren’t serial. I don’t know, Dark Shadows? Let me know if you can think of any.
** You haven’t got to believe in souls to believe in zombies. But if you’re going to compare them to ghosts you kind of do.