Too bad Ryan Murphy’s ambition outweighs his talent.
If you don’t know what to watch next, FX’s American Horror Story (2011-) is available to stream on Hulu, and, for the first four seasons, at least, it’s worth your time.
Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s ongoing collection of miniseries has won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Jessica Lange, one for Kathy Bates, and one for James Cromwell.
The anthology horror series weaves a different narrative each season, with different characters in different settings. Sometimes, the same actors reappear to play different parts.
At its finest, the limited series make for the most literate fans of the genre a meal of allusions to and interpretations of every variety of horror, from the supernatural to the psychological, from the darkly comedic to the blackly dramatic, from science fiction to the Gothic.
And it starts off on the right foot. The first season, American Horror Story: Murder House, appropriates the trope of the dysfunctional family moving into a haunted house and adapts it to the television medium.
The result is the most refreshing contemporary take on this classic cliché you could ever hope to see, with the long-form storytelling of Golden Age TV generating suspense through binge-worthy cliffhangers as well as developing the performances with epic detail.
American Horror Story: Asylum would be the greatest season, if not for the absurd alien abduction subplot.
Still, what it gets right outweighs what it gets wrong by a wide margin, and it is more re-watchable than the best season.
American Horror Story: Cult features some of the most quotable dialogue, yet, somehow, some of the weakest writing. As Misty Day (Lily Rabe) raises the dead, she lowers the dramatic stakes.
Why kill off a character if they’re just going to be resurrected later?
What’s more, the big reveal is not foreshadowed enough, which is narratively dishonest. The most efficacious twists land not only because they surprise us, but also because they play by the rules of the world-building.
Still, there is a campy pleasure in watching A-listers like Lange, Bates, and Angela Bassett smoke, drink, and dress to kill.
The unsavory realism of its mise-en-scène makes it the most difficult season to watch, but the most “horrifying” horror is that which is experienced in our world, and for that reason, Freak Show is the masterpiece of American Horror Story.
The beginning of the end is American Horror Story: Hotel. It would benefit from a more ambiguous answer to the “Hotel Hell” mythos à la Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stephen King.
Instead, Hotel throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience – ghosts, vampires, serial killers – and none of it sticks.
It’s an exercise in futility to identify what Hotel is even about, which theme pulls the incohesive plot threads together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For all its overcrowding, Hotel does nothing fresh with its glut of material.
But Hotel is far more watchable than American Horror Story: Roanoke. An incomprehensible, uninspired bore, Roanoke is the worst season of American Horror Story, with unmemorable characters and an uninteresting premise.
The “haunted house” formula had already been visited, and better, in Murder House, and the “found footage” gimmick, while a novel homage, fails to grasp what makes found footage work in the first place, which is a cast of unknowns who may or may not have actually disappeared.
Cuba Gooding, Junior, is hardly “unknown.”
American Horror Story: Cult was almost the comeback the show needed, but it is bookended by a poor premiere and an even worse finale.
After the cringeworthy opening episode, wherein Murphy uses his characters as mouthpieces for his own social commentary in the form of hashtag soundbites and “GIFable” moments, Cult surprises with some of the strongest hours in the series.
In fact, they were some of the most important episodes on TV at the time, critiquing the Trump Administration through a realistic “cult” allegory resonating with the same horrifying verisimilitude as Freak Show.
Unfortunately, for its third act, cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) suffers an unintelligible character assassination as the showrunners disembark on a bizarre “mad with power” arc that provokes rather than enlightens.
American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the crossover between Murder House and Cult, marks an improvement above Hotel, Roanoke, and Cult, but when an anthology has nothing new to say, then it has lost its voice.
The forthcoming American Horror Story: 1984 has an abysmally low bar to clear ahead of it, but, then again, so did Roanoke.
Starting American Horror Story from the beginning, you will find yourself addicted to a sinfully gaudy universe that you will mourn over by the time you reach the end, but the lower the crash, the higher the peak.