The new season of American Horror Story premiered last night on FX. But before we get into that meta-weirdness, let us first appreciate what a rarified space the show’s producers have occupied over the 13 years they’ve been making TV shows together.
In 2003, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk launched FX’s Nip/Tuck onto the relativity safe space of basic cable. The Shield had more than bloodied some noses, but showing graphic boob jobs, casting sexy Famke Janssen as a trans man and all the bed-hopping was more HBO and Showtime’s territory. Critics mostly loved it, a handful hated it, and the show was a fringe hit for seven seasons.
In their subsequent projects—FOX’s Glee and Scream Queens and FX’s American Horror Story and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—Murphy and Falchuk have operated from the sensibility that TV is a canvas for bold visuals, big ensembles, bravura characters, ethnic diversity, sexual adventurousness, frequent directional shifts and a willingness to shock in ways that land on both sides of the taste line. I can’t think of another TV team who so frequently casts actresses with Down Syndrome in non-angelic roles, like cartoonish villain Becky Jackson on Glee and creepy neighbor Addie Langdon on American Horror Story: Murder House. In casting, as in story selection and other areas, Murphy and Falchuk challenge the viewer’s natural sympathies and ordinary understandings as a starting place for a season-long story arc.
A big part of why The People vs. O.J. Simpson was so good, and why it’s nominated in nearly every miniseries category at Sunday’s Primetime Emmy Awards, is that they cast so many of the big, familiar roles against type and dared viewers to think it wouldn’t hold together. The question wasn’t just whether they could make O.J. Simpson a real, sympathetic character in his murder trial, but whether they could do it with Cuba “Show Me the Money” Gooding Jr.
American Horror Story has been hot and cold for me since the beginning. The filmmaking that goes into it is consistently gorgeous and visually provocative, but the constant stuffing of more characters and more story into an already-too-many 13 episodes has tended toward bloat. Last season’s Hotel also suffered from casting Lady Gaga too close to her public persona and hanging too much of the show on her shoulders.
FX and the producers had made a priority of keeping this season’s theme and setting, which change every season, and much of the casting a mystery in an effort to focus attention on last night’s season premiere. The overnight ratings aren’t out yet, but #AHS6 was the top trending tag on Twitter and the viewers, completely bewildered by the opening minutes, were making comments like “I’m honestly so confused” and “is the Roanoke Nightmare thing the subtitle or just the title for this episode?!”
A title card going into the first commercial break reads My Roanoke Nightmare, but there was no opening credit sequence. Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson were (apparently) playing the same person. There were talking-head interviews like you’d see on Dateline or 48 Hours. Announced series regulars Lady Gaga and Evan Peters were nowhere in sight. A scene of raining teeth wasn’t particularly weird for a show that has previously featured Kathy Bates with a beard, but where the hell was Kathy Bates?
Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. play a couple who move to a foreclosed house in rural Virginia, and Angela Bassett plays Gooding’s sister. Lily Rabe, André Holland and Adina Porter apparently play the actual people that those characters are based on in the documentary version that is presented as occurring after My Roanoke Nightmare has concluded. A new trailer posted late last night on the FX website clears some things up, but watch the episode first if you haven’t seen it.
I’m cautiously optimistic about AHS: My Roanoke Nightmare. The fact that the three leads all apparently survive long enough to talk about it in a documentary zapped most of the suspense from the first episode, but that could have been entirely intentional. Falchuk and Murphy wrote the episode and longtime series director Bradley Buecker shot it, and they have plenty of goodwill from their previous work together despite last season’s rare miss. They know what they’re doing.
The highest compliment you can pay a show in the Peak TV era is to watch the next episode, and I’ll certainly go that far.