Is it possible for a series that fits squarely into the horror genre to survive on television? The debut of FX's "American Horror Story" and the second season of AMC's "The Walking Dead" will provide answers in the weeks to come.
Of course, horror is in the eye of the beholder, and some genre enthusiasts will assert that it is alive and well in The CW's "Supernatural" and "The Vampire Diaries," HBO's "True Blood" and Syfy's "Being Human." But I would argue that the under-appreciated "Supernatural" is as much an action-thriller as a creepy chiller; that "The Vampire Diaries" is a teen-appeal soap opera with horror elements; that "True Blood" is excitingly violent, sexy, mysterious and humorous but never really scary; and that "Being Human," despite centering on a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost, exists more to explore the human condition as experienced by uncertain young adults than the inhuman experiences of menacing creatures of the night.
"American Horror Story" and "The Walking Dead," on the other hand, serve up suffocating horror with an intensity so unrelenting that it goes beyond emotional connection to psychological interactivity. These two are nothing like most series, with their comparatively passive viewing experiences.
What makes both "American Horror Story" and "The Walking Dead," particularly interesting is that they stretch to their breaking points the limitations of traditionally accepted content on advertiser-supported programs. One could say that they often breach those boundaries. At the very least, they invite a renewed assessment of content issues. Are extended scenes of unrelenting horror and unspeakable violence, especially if they involve children, more or less acceptable than the occasional F-bomb or explicit nudity -- and if so, why? Will sponsors support ultra-violence and extreme horror outside of the procedural crime genre, where the intent of such content is to maximize interest in subsequent criminal investigations rather than to terrify on a primal level?
"American Horror Story," which premieres Oct. 5, has been described by critics as everything from a lunatic mess to a work of warped genius. I think there is a degree of truth in both statements. It's all about a Boston family in crisis that tries to start over by moving into a creepy Los Angeles home, the price of which has been sufficiently reduced to induce potential buyers to ignore its history as the site of much previous madness, murder and mayhem. Many terrible things happened there in the past, and increasingly odd things happen when the family moves in -- all of just strange and remote enough to be fun to watch, even if it doesn't always make sense. Series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck promise early answers to much of what happens in the pilot so as not to frustrate and alienate viewers.
It is one thing to watch something horrific in nature but not actually "feel" the horror (again, for me that's the case with "Supernatural," "Vampire Diaries," "True Blood" and "Being Human"). It's another to be truly scared by something as it plays out. For that reason, the first episode of "Horror" -- which is more freakish than frightening -- may not grab genre enthusiasts in the same way as last year's remarkable pilot for "The Walking Dead." But there are two sequences in "Horror's" second episode -- one at the start, one near the end -- that are among the most terrifying things I have ever seen on entertainment television. Given a hundred years to contemplate the matter, you will not be able to understand why the fractured family that has just settled into that house would ever step foot in it again, let alone agree to continue living there. The more engaged I become, the more I wonder how "Horror" can possibly sustain itself as an ongoing franchise.
The overall uncertainty about just what the hell is going on could become an obstacle for "American Horror Story" in the same way that the sustained misery and general lack of plot advancement might ultimately hurt the otherwise extraordinary "Walking Dead." The first two episodes of its second season, which begins on Oct. 16, prove that "Dead" is as riveting as ever, largely because it is grounded in reality as we would imagine it to be in a zombie plague or similarly horrific event. There is nothing to figure out, except what caused the deaths of millions (or maybe billions) of people and then made them rise as flesh-eating creatures. Tellingly, it matters little that we may never get that answer.
What counts is how the rag-tag, ever-changing group of survivors handle the impossible situations they find themselves in, and the questions that are raised by their increasingly desperate existence. Can a show this dense with despair satisfy its followers without an upbeat ending? Or would unexpected happiness at the last prove as unsatisfying as that trip to purgatory on "Lost"? I hope "Dead" runs for several years, but I wonder how long it can last without giving its characters and viewers a break.