by Shayna Grissom
American Horror Story was a revolutionary TV show when first introduced. Each season has a different theme, different plot, and varying cast. The signature intro music remained the same, a droning, buzzing ensemble that accompanied flashes of secret-revealing imagery. Everyone has a favorite, or more keenly, a most hated season. While we all have our kinks, some seasons were clearly better than others.
Preferences aside, it is impossible to argue the decline of the show. I practically forced myself to watch American Horror Story: Roanoke. Even then, the talented line-up couldn’t save the miserable story. The show’s usual cast members Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates signed on to Ryan Muphy’s new show, Feud. Angela Bassett is also MIA, which makes me sad.
I’m not optimistic for the next season. Why? Because Murphy has a history of rapid decline in all his shows. They all start out brilliant and end in flames. To add to the frustration for AHS fans, Murphy and and collaborator Brad Falchuck are seemingly distracted. The last three seasons of AHS were written and filmed around the same time as Scream Queens, American Crime Story, and Feud.
What does it take to cancel a Murphy & Falchuck show? Glee was a worldwide phenomenon. The first few seasons were engaging and brilliant. It quickly took a nose dive into worse and worse songs and plotlines. It became less quirky and comedic and spun into a mental health awareness PSA. It wasn’t until the loss of Cory Monteith that the show was finally put to pasture. Ryan Murphy’s other dragged out sensation of Nip/Tuck became just as convoluted after the initial few seasons.
Television providers are too quick to sign Murphy and Falchuck into extended contracts. Swept into the success, the integrity of the show goes into the wood chipper. If said wood chipper was still manned by Jessica Lange, I’m not sure I’d be writing this article, but here we are.
So just what was the tipping point for American Horror Story? When did it lose its power? Let's break down each season and reevaluate them individually to see when and where it went wrong.
The first season was by far one of the best, they usually are. Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott were a married couple surviving a gorgeous house filled with ghosts. Jessica Lange was the anti-hero, a wild-card element as she should be. Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters were misunderstood lovers. The best reveal in the series was that Taissa’s character had succeeded in committing suicide and Evan Peter’s character, Tate, was trying to shield her from the truth. My only issue with the season was the obsession with babies. Yes, the need for parentage fueled the plot, but it resolved too quickly for some of the characters. Lily Rabe's character longed for a baby, but just gave up on the idea. The gay couple didn’t want a baby once they realized the truth of their failed relationship. It just seemed too simple. This season was raw as it had no guarantee of positive reception. It pushed the boundaries of what could be seen on public broadcast. This season was a 9 out of 10.
Asylum brought back Lange and Peters while giving Sarah Paulson a much larger role. Lange is a nun of sorts running a mental asylum post World War 2. James Cromwell plays a former SS doctor with some major hang-ups about women. Peters and newcomer Lizzie Brocheré are confused about whether they’re insane or not. Sarah Paulson is held against her will for being a lesbian as it was considered a mental disorder at the time. Asylum stretches its themes too thin. The best part of the entire season was Lily Rabe’s possessed nun. She shifted so seamlessly between an innocent nun and homicidal maniac, you never could tell who was in control. It was a shame that aliens, human experiments, serial killers and Nazi Catholic conspiracies were all wedged into one season. 6 out of 10.
Coven was by far my favorite season. The plot was streamlined into one culminating event; who would be the witch supreme? Each witch had her own powers as the decedents of Salem. What made this season so good was the building on the general premise. Much like how Murder House incorporated famous stories like the Black Dahlia, Coven brought in Voodoo as a witchcraft (necessary for the New Orleans setting) and Marie Lalaurie. The only downside was that, once again, the plot was spun so tight it almost broke...almost. The Supreme ended up being the person it probably should have been all along. Coven gets a 9 out of 10.
Freak Show is perhaps one of the most hit or miss seasons for people. People either enjoyed it or they didn’t. Once again, I find myself impressed by Sarah Paulson, this time she played a conjoined twin. The plot is at a minimum. A failing freak show is attempting to keep its act together despite people fearing their abnormalities. To its credit, Freak Show brought the most common abnormalities to light for what they were. It also did a superb job of displaying how people mistreat and dehumanize those who are different. There was also a killer clown with an interesting back story, though I’m not entirely sure why he was there. And in case life isn’t difficult enough, yet another murderous psychopath was running around unchecked. 7 out of 10.
Hotel was one of the more acclaimed seasons. With the addition of Lady Gaga, this series took place in a hotel run by a vampire. There were serial killers and typical policeman plot hang-ups involving missing children. This season had three major plotlines that sort of blended into one. It’s not bad per say, but it’s boring. I struggled through this season and ultimately, I gave up. I was simply unable to identify with the characters. My love for Lady Gaga wasn’t enough to pull me through. At this rate, American Horror Story has me burnt out on serial killers, and this season has several. 5 out of 10.
Roanoke was the worst to date. It’s not a matter of perception, it was just awful. This time, they tried to shake it up, make it into a reality show. Initially, I was accepting of the idea, but it was botched when they didn’t continue with that format. Trying to cram all the American Horror Story actors into one season, it was a reality show, followed by “non-reality," to do a second reality show. Oh, and there were some cannibalistic hillbillies murdering people to protect their pot. Cause who really needs to murder people over pot these days? 3 out of 10.
So, what’s next for this series?
The new season is Cult, and the clowns are back. With the announcement of the new addition, Lena Dunham, I’m almost hoping for the demise of a castmate to end the horror this series has become. Alison Pill is promising, but it seems like many of the usual cast members have backed away from the series. I suspect there will be ties to Freak Show and a few other seasons. Unlike the normal twelve or thirteen episodes, this season will have eleven episodes.
I sincerely hope that the writers put a stronger emphasis on character development and less on how many characters they can throw in. As far as I can tell, that is American Horror Story’s downfall. The best example for comparison is Penny Dreadful. In Penny Dreadful, characters are discovered and rediscovered throughout the series. It pushes us to not only invest in the character, but it challenges us on who we thought that character was.
One of the reasons Jessica Lange’s AHS characters are always so popular is because of this multifaceted aspect. When she shot the maid in Murder House, she was so callous. Yet in the same turn, she loved her daughter fiercely. In Coven, Lange electrocuted people, but turned around and begged the mother superior to let Ms. Winters go. In Coven, she heartbreakingly struggled with cancer alone, yet was capable of such cruelty to her coven.
This is what American Horror Story fails to grasp in its newer seasons. Between distracted writers and directors, and overstretched plot lines, AHS is a sinking ship. I admit I’m thrilled to see a returning actor or a nod at past seasons. Connections between the seasons is a fun pursuit, but not nearly as exciting as a challenging dynamic between complex characters.