THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE A HAUNTED HOME: To hell with Casper. The ghosts are decidedly unfriendly these days. Not content to go "Boo!" in the night, the malevolent spirits that haunt FX's terminally twisted American Horror Story (10/9c) have a tendency to get under the skin, playing sexually charged and violent mind games with their victims.
But how frightening is this haunted-house creep show? Depends on whether you're of the "less is more" or "more is more" school of terror. Horror Story errs on the side of overkill, reminding us of the perilously thin line between what's scary and just plain silly. From Ryan Murphy (Glee) in his garishly gothic psychosexual Nip/Tuck mode of wretched excess, this is so overstuffed and disjointed in its reckless piling on of nasty shocks-for-shock's-sake, it often feels as if it were edited with a Cuisinart on "chain saw" setting.
Still, I defy you not to get goose bumps anytime a character descends into the Cellar Where Disgusting Evil Lurks, starting with the classic prologue — set in 1978, the year Halloween premiered, and that's surely no accident — in which two repulsive twins are lured to their doom while a little neighbor girl with Down syndrome chants, "You're gonna regret it."
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Following one of the most chilling and unnervingly grotesque title sequences in recent memory — it's much more provocative than the show's peculiar poster with its rubber-suited ghoul lurking over a half-naked woman — we cut to the present day. A precariously married couple (Dylan McDermott, who's uncomfortably stiff, and Connie Britton, who's just plain uncomfortable) move into a '20s-era L.A. mansion they buy for a steal — first warning sign — with their snotty teenage daughter (the unbearably smug Taissa Farmiga). In no time, it's clear they've signed a lease on a perverse madhouse that's all too happy to rub salt deep into their psychic wounds. They're gonna regret it.
Will the viewer regret it? Once again, it depends on one's tolerance for indulgent and borderline-incoherent mayhem. There are occasional shivery pleasures, including an inspired recurring hallucination involving a creepy old housekeeper (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) who most men tend to see as a sexy maid (Alexandra Breckenridge). And as their blithely nosy Southern belle of a neighbor, Jessica Lange steals this surreal freak show with comical verve, purring and hissing in a delirious display of mock piety laced with menacing vulgarity. She's reason enough to tune in. Still, the hot mess of American Horror Story is berserk to a fault, though it does have an unnerving originality compelling us to watch while we cringe, or perhaps smirk.
Enter at your own risk.
NIGHT'S TOP PICK: In the tradition of Martin Scorsese's acclaimed biographical portrait of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, HBO presents Scorsese's two-night tribute to the so-called "quiet Beatle" in the intimately observed George Harrison: Living in the Material World (9/8c; concludes Thursday). The documentary charts Harrison's musical and spiritual journey with home movies, a treasure trove of photographs, and interviews with friends and colleagues including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Phil Spector, Yoko Ono, George Martin, Eric Clapton and Tom Petty. Our in-house music guru Joseph Hudak declares this documentary to be "splendid."
GOOD FOR A LAUGH: In a special Wednesday episode, Fox's rambunctious Raising Hope (9:30/8:30c) sends the family to Las Vegas for the wedding of Virginia's nose-in-the-air cousin Delilah, played to the hilt by Amy Sedaris, who's a natural fit on this garish yet endearing sitcom. Delilah has spent her whole life upstaging Virginia, who declares, "It's like she has writers or something," and is especially humbled when recalling her own hasty nuptials to Burt back when she was pregnant with Jimmy. The episode builds to a sweet finish, making for a nice contrast with Tuesday night's "Wedding" episode of New Girl.
KIDS TODAY! Can South Park really be 15 years old? Thankfully, the 4th-graders remain resolutely immature. The show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are hotter than ever, having recently been profiled on 60 Minutes while their Tony-winning musical The Book of Mormon is Broadway's toughest ticket. (If you can't get in, settle for the hilariously profane original cast album.) As the new season of South Park begins (Comedy Central, 10/9c), Cartman slaughters yet another sacred cow as he convinces himself he has Asperger's syndrome. DVR alert: To celebrate the 15-year milestone, Comedy Central will air a behind-the-scenes documentary, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, on Sunday (10/9c), which I'll write about later this week.
So what else is on? ... Some selected highlights: Fox's The X Factor (8/7c) moves into its boot-camp phase with a 90-minute episode. Might this put a kick in the show's ratings? ... Gloria is doggone desperate to find Stella after losing the polarizing pooch on ABC's Modern Family (9/8c). ... Next! Emily sets her sights on taking down the DA who falsely convicted her father. That's why they call it Revenge (ABC, 10/9c). ... On BBC America's gripping Luther (10/9c), the embattled detective is on the lookout for his loyal sidekick Ripley, who's been kidnapped and is in the sadistic clutches of the masked serial killer. But Luther's encounter with the thugs who want him to return teenage prostitute Jenny proves an equally painful distraction.
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