What the Hell’s Going on with “American Horror Story?”

Posted on September 29, 2016

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No, really. We’re asking. Because we just finished the third episode of the season and the answer to the question posed by the title above seems to be, “Not a whole hell of a lot, apparently.”

For the past few seasons of the show, we started off watching AHS extremely tentatively, tuning in for reasons of pure curiosity more than a desire to watch to completion. We’d had our fill of this show by the time its third season collapsed and we knew we were never going to end another season with the kind of satisfaction and sense of entertainment we got out of the first two. Once Jessica Lange bailed, it was only morbid curiosity about whether Lady Gaga could act (spoiler: not really) and some stunning set and costume design that kept us tuning in sporadically. But for the past few seasons, we’ve always dropped the show by the halfway point. We have no idea how Freak Show or Hotel even ended. And honestly, we couldn’t care less.

But if there’s one thing you can count on from a Ryan Murphy joint it’s a strong, often jaw-dropping opening chapter. From Nip/Tuck to Glee to American Horror Story, he’s a creator who has more than earned his reputation as a poor closer, but damn, if he doesn’t know how to start things off. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson is a rare instance of a show under the Murphy banner handing in a near-flawless season of television, from beginning to end. We wondered, going into this AHS season, if Murphy hadn’t achieved a maturity as a showrunner and creator that allowed him to stay more focused. On the one hand, the first few episodes of Roanoke (the long-hidden title of this season of AHS) indicate a steady hand and a sense of focus without a need for a lot of fireworks and jump scares. On the other hand, it’s been the three most boring consecutive episodes of American Horror Story we may have ever seen.

Is this working for anyone? This retread of season one’s Murder House storyline, except with more hillbillies and no Jessica Lange? Because it’s putting us to sleep. It’s not necessarily a problem that they’re doing another version of a haunted house story (on the surface, at least). It’s a problem that they’re not doing anything interesting or new with it. Homicidal nurse ghosts? Mutilated pig men? Kathy Bates doing an insane accent? AHS has always been a lot of things, but “stale” was rarely one of them. We suppose it could be argued that the “cable-channel ghost story re-enactment show” hook is fresh. It was an intriguing way to start off, especially since the very format inspired some head-scratching. No cable re-enactment had production values or actors that good. And it comes off a little odd that the “re-enactors” are rather significantly older than the people they’re portraying. Worst of all, almost all drama is removed from any of the “scary” scenes because the very people involved in them are calmly narrating after the fact. There’s clearly a huge twist coming, and we have no doubt that if we spent a couple of hours digging through Reddit thread theories, we could come up with something that sounds enticing, but the show so far isn’t really interesting enough to have us dig any further. Murphy has indicated that they’re trying to tie all six seasons together, which could explain the sense of staleness and repetition and serves as an example of why tying the seasons together at all is a mistake. The minute you make continuity your primary concern, you sacrifice character and storytelling. But the problem isn’t the haunted house or cable re-enactment hook or the bizarre attempt to retroactively turn an anthology series into one continuous story. It’s the characters, which are some of the blandest in the show’s history.

These people aren’t interesting and their problems are mundane and lack impact. Angela Bassett/Adina Porter’s character is paddling upstream in a river of shit, and both actresses are doing a decent job of portraying the woman’s desperation as her life falls apart, but everything about her arc is Lifetime Television for Women stuff, including the insultingly cliched “daughter’s imaginary friend who is clearly a ghost” aspect.  As for Cuba Gooding/Andre Holland and Sarah Paulson/Lily Rabe, we suppose if we’re being kind we could suggest that their whininess and blandness is supposed to be a wicked commentary on the kinds of dumb people who populate most haunted house stories, but we haven’t been given any reason to suggest that this season is operating on anything but a surface level.

This was a show that, however badly and clumsily it did so, at least attempted to say provocative things about an admirable range of topics: misogyny and homophobia, the history of race in America, the psychology of serial killers, the eerie parallels of rape and alien abduction stories, the direct line that connects the freak shows of the past with modern society’s attitudes toward the different and differently abled, the thin line that separates religious extremism from insanity. Three episodes in and we can’t really see what the hook of the story is at all, let alone what heavy themes and questions it’s trying to tackle.

There’s no lean in. No catching of the breath. No shock. Even when it was bad, you could at least rely on American Horror Story for that.

 

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