Thursday, September 15, 2016

REVIEW: 'American Horror Story' - The New Season Begins with Some Familiar but Fun Horror Tropes in 'Chapter 1'

FX's American Horror Story - Episode 6.01 "Chapter 1"

The limited series returns for a sixth installment.

Throughout its run, American Horror Story has fallen into a familial pattern and routine - both in terms of narrative structuring and in marketing and audience engagement. The show has done very well over the years. So, it's not surprising that these traditions formed. At the end of every season, Ryan Murphy teased that viewers could guess what the next season's theme would be. A few weeks after that he would actually reveal the theme. Over the next few months, we would be blasted with tons of casting announcements of A-list stars, set photos showing the awesome new set productions and character portraits revealing just how different the regular actors will look this year. On top of all of that, FX would release cryptic teasers just barely giving us a taste of what the new season's themes and style would be. It's a lot of publicity for one show. But it works because the show is such a massive hit for FX. And yet, the franchise decided to do something different this season. A decision that really helped to bring this skeptic reviewer back to the franchise.

This season was shrouded in complete secrecy. The audience knew it was coming back. But we didn't know the theme. We didn't know which veteran actors of the franchise would be returning and which exciting new faces would join them. We knew nothing. It was a strategy that definitely peaked my interest heading into last night's season premiere. The teasers promoting the new season didn't do that. But the mystery actually did. I lost interest in the franchise because every season got more absurd than the last. This isn't a subtle show at all. Murphy and his collaborators love stylish excess. There is an audience for that kind of storytelling. But after so many seasons, the plot beats and over-the-top elements just became too formulaic without much substance. Every season of the show starts strong but loses its way and its edge as the year goes along. That's always a troubling issue. It always makes me curious in the premieres but not the whole season.

More importantly, the style of the show was always the same year to year. There are many different ways to tell a story. And yet, American Horror Story has always had the same visual template. It allows Murphy to proclaim that every season of the show is somehow connected. That doesn't need to be true at all. But it's something he is able to get away with because of how similar the look and feel of each season is. Yes, the story changes every year. Actors play different characters every season. But the way the show told its various stories was the same. You can always expect over-the-top glamor and a glossy edge to the stylization. It's storytelling that allows these type of actors to have an absolute ball on camera. No one can deny that folks like Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett have had fun on this show. It's campy but that's a solid foundation of the horror genre. It's not the only way to tell a horror-based story though. After five seasons of that, it's about time the show has changed. This first episode is very promising in that regard.

So, "Chapter 1" starts the story by revealing this season is actually a parody of true-crime horror documentaries. It's the kind of serious but supernatural based shows one might discover on ID or Syfy. Matt (Andre Holland) and Shelby (Lily Rabe) are telling their horrific story to the camera while reenactments depict the horror to the audience - with Sarah Paulson playing Shelby and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Matt. It's a new and refreshing perspective for the show. Yes, it dives fully into the conventions of this medium. So, that does add a predictable element to this premiere. And yet, it's so engaging and fun to watch as the story twists and turns. It's not surprising that the house Matt and Shelby buy in the secluded woods in North Carolina with all of their savings turns out to be a disaster that scares them half to death. That's a familiar plot device of the genre. Just as it is when there is something lurking in the woods that wishes them harm. The woods have always been a reliable resource in horror movies. They can represent the urge to escape from reality but they also represent danger and unpredictability. It's a world where the main characters are all alone. They are trapped and forced to deal with these unspeakable horrors by themselves. It's engaging to watch as Matt and Shelby slowly realize just how creepy this new house is. Matt's life as a traveling salesman means Shelby gets to spend a lot of time alone in the house. That isolation in a new location is a creepy detail. Things definitely go bump in the night. The show does an effective job of using those conventional horror moments to scare the audience.

This really is a first person perspective story. The simpleness of that structure really gives this premiere a new energy that is so foreign to everything the franchise has done previously. The show loves going as big and broad as possible from the very first moment. So the kind of restraint seen here is nearly miraculous. This is new territory for the show. It's an influx of new creative energy. But the question now becomes: How long is that going to last this season? This premiere is very effective with these very specific details. But is this entire season going to focus on this true crime horror story? Will Rabe, Holland and Adina Porter just exist as talking heads informing the audience of the important plot and character beats? If so, that makes it likely that Matt, Shelby and Matt's sister, Lee, will make it out of this season alive. But it wouldn't be American Horror Story if the season didn't twist the conventions and the tropes. Is a big twist like that really necessary? Does the audience need to see Matt, Shelby and Lee leave the studio interview only to still be haunted in their regular lives? And more importantly, what are we suppose to make of that final twist that gives this season of the show its subtitle.

Matt, Shelby and Lee are being haunted by the ghosts of Roanoke, a colony in early America where over a hundred settlers mysteriously vanished. At least two of those ghosts are being played by Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley who appear for just a few seconds at the end of this episode. So, it's clear that this story is just getting started and it's about to take an even weirder turn to include more supernatural elements. But does it really need to do that? Well, of course, it does. How else is it going to incorporate such an expansive and really talent cast? And yet, this premiere works so well because of how simple it is. It's just the story of three people in the woods and the mysterious but cryptic presence that is haunting them. Plus, this isn't the first time the lost colony of Roanoke has been used for horror purposes. I'm pretty sure that Sleepy Hollow did an episode with basically the same premise in its first season. So, there is nothing totally original about this idea. The execution is where the excitement of this season will need to come from. So far, it's off to a pretty interesting start. But again, that worrisome feeling about the future going completely off the rails comes creeping in again. Every season has lost itself by the end of its run. I'm a huge fan of Asylum but I wouldn't suggest its a perfect or cohesive season of television. This premiere gives me more confidence and intrigue for the next few episodes than Coven or Hotel did. But the show is still teetering on an edge and could fall off at a moment's notice.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter 1" was written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk and directed by Bradley Buecker.
  • Series regulars for this season are Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lily Rabe, Andre Holland, Denis O'Hare, Wes Bentley, Evan Peters, Cheyenne Jackson and Angela Bassett.
  • Bradley Buecker really does a great job at bringing the new energy and creative direction alive through his direction. As someone who is a veteran director of this show, that's very impressive.
  • All three of the main characters have some pretty tragic backstories. Ones that are put through the emotional ringer quite effectively with the reenactments. Matt is hospitalized after a vicious beating. Shelby suffers a miscarriage. Lee developed an addition to pain killers and lost her job as a police officer.
  • That was a pretty graphic turn for the show to take in Lee's reenactment of failing to stop a fleeing serial rapist from killing himself.
  • I definitely jumped when Shelby hit Kathy Bates' mysterious character with her car. I shouldn't have because I'm sick and tired of so many manipulative car accident scenes in today's dramas. But I did nevertheless.
  • Okay, Ryan Murphy is just straight up trolling the audience with this new Sarah Paulson-Cuba Gooding Jr. relationship. After a season of watching them antagonize each other as Marcia Clark and O.J. Simpson on FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, they are now a married couple having graphic sex.
  • FX has just confirmed this afternoon that this season will officially be called American Horror Story: Roanoke. Fans were speculating that it would be My Roanoke Nightmare but I guess that's just the title of the true crime show within the show.