‘American Horror Story’ Season 6’s Meta-Twist Is Not Nearly as Clever as It Thinks
After weeks of enigmatic and intentionally misleading teasers (and one that was little more than a promo for Lady Gaga’s new single), American Horror Story finally revealed its mystery theme for Season 6 with last night’s premiere of My Roanoke Nightmare — or is it My Roanoke Nightmare: A True American Horror Story? Or American Horror Story: Roanoke? Whatever it is, it’s not likely to make up for the whiplash-inducing shifts in quality of the last three seasons, despite creator Ryan Murphy’s promise of a shorter, tighter and less convoluted installment in the anthology series.
Presented in docu-series format, My Roanoke Nightmare follows a couple as they move into a spooooooky house in the middle of nowhere to cope with the trauma of a miscarriage and a random physical assault. Using a framing device evocative of Unsolved Mysteries or any number of “it happened to me” true-life TV series, the latest AHS installment offers two ensembles for the price (your precious time) of one: Lily Rabe and The Knick’s Andre Holland play the married couple, with Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Marcia Clark and O.J., cute) as their counterparts in the meta-fictional reenactments.
That framing device is A Real Problem; it completely negates repeated attempts to build tension, hobbling the narrative and effectively rendering it impotent. Every scene is interrupted by characters explaining what they were doing and how they were feeling, using confessional “interviews” as extraneous, expository therapy sessions. Here it seems that Murphy and his writers believe they have found a solution to the over-stuffed, gleefully excessive seasons of the past; instead, they’ve merely found a different approach to heavy-handed storytelling, but at least FX probably saved some money — it just feels (and looks) so damn cheap.
Alternate titles for Season 6:
- American Horror Story: Yeah, We Don’t Know, Either
- American Horror Story: Tumblr Fan-Fiction
- American Horror Story: Ryan Murphy Binge-Watched “It Happened to Me” Shows on TLC One Weekend
- American Horror Story: You’re Still Watching This
- And, to borrow a favorite from Difficult People: American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought It Through This Time
Making things worse is the impression that Murphy & Co.’s Season 6 approach is not nearly as clever as they think. This meta-fictional narrative isn’t some insightful reflection of our morbid fascination with true crime media and the sensationalism of real-life horrors. In any case, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson already accomplished that in its thoughtful, brilliantly-written exploration of, among other things, how a real, gruesome tragedy and Simpson’s subsequent trial essentially created the concept of reality television.
If that framing device were removed (I fully anticipate a fan edit once the season is complete), we might be left with a fairly decent and somewhat suspenseful thriller with supernatural elements. So much of what’s happening in the story-within-a-story is relatively compelling, like Sarah Paulson (and her great hair) exchanging barbs with Angela Bassett, the interloping hillbillies, creepy VHS tapes and teeth — yes, teeth — raining from the ceiling. And that’s before we even get to the titular Roanoke element and the ghosts of the disappeared colonists. Then again, Murphy’s shows always sound so much more entertaining when you’re explaining them to someone else.
Though Murphy & Co. have ditched some of the excess (for now), they’re still employing the same potpourri bag of horror movie references, albeit with a little restraint — none of which is bad, necessarily, until you add those dumb talking head interviews. Season 6, so far, includes bits and pieces of Straw Dogs, The Blair Witch Project and The Last House on the Left, all of which are great films to draw from in reasonable doses. And there is some wit on display: Take Paulson, whose subtle, straight-faced commitment highlights the satire of her character, who embodies white privilege and talks about her yoga and gluten allergy without a single hint of irony.
Unfortunately, what good there (potentially) is gets crippled by that feeble framing device. At best, it’s a lazy attempt to be clever with a meta-fictional conceit that “just really makes you think, you know?”; at worst, it’s a smug gimmick that’s narratively and visually cheap. As much as I enjoy the acting talents of Lily Rabe, Andre Holland and Adina Porter (and surely more to come), their involvement is wholly unnecessary. Perhaps Murphy would do well to heed the advice of fashion legend Coco Chanel, who once said — I’m paraphrasing — that you should always look in the mirror and remove one accessory before leaving the house.
Applying that advice in the context of American Horror Story, Murphy should probably look at each script and remove one plot device before filming it. Screw it. Remove five.
Listen, no one would ever accuse Ryan Murphy of being capable of anything remotely resembling nuance. It’s part of what’s made his shows appealing in a way that feels sort of illicit; they’re campy and silly, with content that seems positively low-brow in comparison to prestige cable and network programming. Watching AHS is like when your mom sneaks an extra glass of (boxed) wine and proclaims, “I’m so bad!”
It’s endearing. Most of the time. So when, in a recent interview, Ryan Murphy said Season 6 will conclude well before Christmas, it made sense — he has to stick that ham on his fist in the oven some time.