American Horror Story has always been a peculiar series. From the mind of Glee‘s Ryan Murphy, it’s been equal parts subversive and frustrating throughout its six seasons. It also numbers itself among a group of standard bearers for the modern anthology series style. As a result, each self-contained season has been given a unique amount of freedom to tell its own story, requiring at most a tenuous connection to past narratives of the show. It’s the latest season, entitled Roanoke, that’s stood apart as both the best, and worst AHS has ever had to offer.
To begin, let’s dive into the story (or at least attempt to). The initial run of episodes is structured as a show within a show, where our main characters are talking heads describing their nightmare experience living in a haunted Carolina forest, while actors fill in the gaps by performing a dramatic re-enactment of the events (a la your run-of-the-mill Lifetime documentary). Halfway through the season, the script flips: The main characters and the re-enactors come together to revisit the cursed house described in the story, this time facing a real-life ghost, all while filming it themselves on handheld cameras.
The result is a season that certainly stands apart from everything else American Horror Story has shown us. Rather than a straight arc with a beginning, middle, and end, we’re getting a meta-narrative that walks the line between standard plot structure and experimental storytelling. It’s a strategy that’s proven itself to be equal parts brilliantly executed and indulgently awful.
First, the good. Roanoke has made for a groundbreaking season of TV, and we’re comfortable saying that before its final episodes even air. There’s something to be said for Ryan Murphy going all-in on the Russian nesting doll approach to AHS‘s story. The part of the series that featured the dramatic reenactment had the ability to purposely be overly cheesy and … well, dramatic, for lack of a better word. The parts of the series that exist as “flashbacks” within the faux documentary, involve a lot of wonderfully campy overacting, existing right in line with what we’d expect if the documentary was in fact real.
Here’s where things begin to break down though. Ryan Murphy has long struggled to maintain a focused narrative across AHS‘s many seasons. Oftentimes, the series feels scattered and ill-planned, all while featuring a handful of “twists” that rarely feel earned. Combine that with a tendency toward a level of graphic violence that seldom feels like a necessity, and we have a recipe for a whole lot of frustration. And all those flaws we just described? For Roanoke, they’ve been multiplied tenfold.
AHS: Roanoke has been weighed down frequently throughout its early episodes by trademark issues of past seasons. The mythology is all over the place, the odd fixation on blood and gore hasn’t managed to serve a purpose past sheer indulgence, and meanwhile, the season is also balancing a complex meta-story that leaves little time for measured plot development. More than all that though, it’s an exercise in Ryan Murphy’s own penchant for excess.
With all that in mind, it’s still been a bizarrely entertaining season so far. When the show switched from the talking head style mockumentary to “this is real life inside the story,” it didn’t just reset the narrative; it flipped over the table entirely. It’s a move that represents a boldness not often seen in modern television, and one that would never fly in the realm of mainstream network entertainment. And yet here we are, watching a horror anthology series that chose to make its latest season equal parts Lifetime documentary and Blair Witch-esque found footage narrative.
At this point, it’s tough to get to the bottom of why we’re still tuning in. On one hand, AHS is one of TV’s most infuriating shows, and it’s been that way for a long time now. On the other, it’s hard to look away when it comes to Roanoke. It’s even stranger when you consider the fact that Roanoke represents everything that’s always been wrong with American Horror Story, on steroids.
Maybe it’s something about watching a dude wearing a pig head running around with a butcher’s knife killing the hell out of people. Or perhaps it’s Kathy Bates playing an actor who is playing a violent Irish demon-ghost that speaks in Shakespearean prose. Whatever the reason, it’s been a painful and excruciating march toward the finale, and yet we find ourselves genuinely invested in what’s happening. As the series inches toward connecting the dots of past seasons, we’re glued to the world’s greatest hate-watching experience with Roanoke.
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