Then and Now: American Horror Story

In 2011, Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee and Niptuck) created a breakout hit with an anthology series that meshed original ideas with homages to the genre of horror. American Horror Story has entertained and frightened audiences for 6 seasons now. For the most part, the show has done a lot of good work, while simultaneously keeping its viewership at a high. However, each of its seasons has had its problems,and many one-time fans have become disgruntled with the show. So, where exactly do this show go wrong?

Season 1: Please Kill These Characters

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Season 1 is by far the least polarizing of all the seasons.

The Story: The Harmons face many conflicts going on in their new home; the primary one stemming from Ben Harmon‘s adultery, and the subsequent fallout with his wife Vivien and daughter Violet. Other conflicts include the intrusive behavior of the neighbors, Constanceand Adelaide, as well as intrusions from one of Dr. Harmon’s patients, Tate. A parade of mysterious visitors to their haunted home, including the scarred Larry Harvey make the first year of the Harmons in Los Angeles very dangerous. The house seems to have a vivid history, ranging from brutal murders to demonic manifestations, and it seems to have its own agenda.

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Very standard haunted house story, straight to the point. The biggest problem with this season was simple to though. That problem was the presentation of the characters. The key to any for of media, whether it be a news program or entertainment television, is that people have to like who is on screen. If there is not a connection, then any situation that the characters are in lose their impact because no one cares. This season, only a total of three characters could be considered likable (A tortured ghost maid, a paranoid pregnant divorcee, and a down syndrome young woman) and even they had their moments of being annoying.

This is a minor incident, caused by trying to have characters fit into the classic molds of horror archetypes. The characterization was kind of… vague and stereotypical. They fixed this in the next season. But… that had its own set of problems.

Season 2: Too Many Cooks, Killers, and Aliens

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Season 2 is the dark horse of the AHS family. While it is credited to contributing to a darker tone that would be emulated in future seasons, it is often forgotten to the polarizing opinions of its younger siblings. Consensus of it that it may very well have the most dynamic characters in the entire series.

The Story: The season begins in 1964 at the fictional mental institution, Briarcliff Manor, following the stories of the staff and inmates who occupy it, and intercuts with events in the past and present. Throughout this time, our characters must face the horrors of demonic possession, serial killers, Nazi scientists, a corrupt church, and aliens.

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It was a lot to take in. What happened was a season that spread itself too thin. While the plot points of the demon and serial killer were delved into each episode, the rest were pushed back into the the subplot category of storytelling. The alien topic was especially hit hard, because while they had a connection to several different characters and were mentioned in almost every single episode, they really didn’t have any real weight to the overarching story.

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Which is a shame. I feel like the aliens were a good idea, but perhaps saved for a later season. Sadly, all they did for Asylum was to stretch the story to thin and make their plot lines forgettable.

Season 3: Boo… I Guess

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Many viewers will cite Coven as their favorite season. While Asylum was dark and hit every type of twisted nerve a viewer could ask for. However, the show runners wanted to go for something different in terms of tone and focus.

American Horror Story: Coven tells the secret history of witches and witchcraft in America. Over 300 years have passed since the turbulent days of the Salem witch trials and those who managed to escape are now facing extinction. Mysterious attacks have been escalating against their kind and young girls are being sent away to a special school in New Orleans to learn how to protect themselves. Wrapped up in the turmoil is new arrival, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who is harboring a terrifying secret of her own. Alarmed by the recent aggression, Fiona (Jessica Lange), the long-absent Supreme, sweeps back into town determined to protect the Coven and hell bent on decimating anyone who gets in her way.

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Sounds fun right? This season had a mixture of Gothic Romance, mixed with some wonderfully fun nods to the greatest singers of all time: Stevie Nicks! But that there lies the problem. This is American Horror Story, and there was a lack of true horror and scares. It was good, but it also is responsible for starting a trend that would last all the way to season 5. The show slowly started to become a dark comedy, with some slight horror elements as a backdrop. The interesting characters and the superb acting assisted this season well.

Season 4: A Carousel Off the Rails

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The 2014-2015 television year was not a good one for me. Hopes were high for two of my favorite shows: AHS season 4 and Rupaul’s Drag Race season 7. In my previous post, you saw what happened to Drag Race. Promising trailer, interest peaked over months of intrigue, but ultimately a let down. Surely this couldn’t happen to another heavy hitter show, right?

You saw this coming.

American Horror Story: Freak Show begins its tale in the quiet, sleepy hamlet of Jupiter, Florida. The year is 1952. A troupe of human curiosities has just arrived in town, coinciding with the strange emergence of a dark entity that savagely threatens the lives of townsfolk and freaks alike. This is the story of the performers and their desperate journey of survival amidst the dying world of the American carny experience.

Oh where to begin. Where could such a promising season with a promising theme go wrong. Maybe it was because the characters aside from one (which I will be talking about shortly) were more one dimensional than the first season. Maybe because it was the random musical numbers that had the fandom nickname it “American Horror Story: Glee”. But really, the reason was that there was no clear focus whatsoever.

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Murder House was character driven. Coven was plot driven. Asylum was in between. They creators tried to make Freak Show like Asylum, but failed, instead creating a mess. Secondary characters got more development than main ones. When said main character got development, it usually meant that they were going to die in that very episode. All except Elsa Mars, played by Jessica Lange.

And there lies the problem. You see, Jessica Lange had been a staple of the American Horror Story cast since season 1, and her characters were always a favorite of the fans. However, they were all technically the same character. She played a bitch. An evil bitch. But one that was flawed, and had a good side to her. As the seasons went on, and Lange’s praises from fans and critics grew, the writers attempted to shape the story around Lange and her character. This made her a spotlight stealer. A talented one, but a detramental one.Her character developed and had so much screen time devoted to her. Every other character? Well, they were there.

And so we come to and end of an era. Jessica Lange left the show. And so we needed a new diva. Enter Mother Monster.

Season 5: Checking In-consistently

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Remember what I said about a polarizing season? Well, this is it. From the get go, people were kind of against this season. Part of it was the name (Hotel did not sound as foreboding as Asylum, Coven, Murder House, and Freak Show) and part of it was Lady Gaga joining the cast. However, for the most part, the fans liked it.

The season’s story is set in the Hotel Cortez, an enigmatic, six-story, art-deco hotel based in Los Angeles. The plot follows Elizabeth, the owner of the hotel, as she tries to protect herself and her children from the fury of her past lover that seeks revenge on her, as well as John Lowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on the task-force for a series of grisly murders that lead him in the direction of the hotel.

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This season got mixed reviews from critics, but like I said, the fans liked it. However there was something that both critics and fans agreed with. The pacing was absolutely awful.

I could not tell you how long, chronologically, it took for a majority of this season to take place. Furthermore, the amount of story in this season (and to a lesser extent, Freak Show) did not seem like it was enough to warrant 12 episodes. The amount of padding on this season was as obvious as the prosthetic dentures in the gif above this sentence.

The producers should have opted with for a lesser episode count. That way this season could have actually been the best one yet. It wasn’t, but once again, this season was saved by the actors.

Overall

The entirety of this series is a chain of failures that is brought on by trying to constantly be on the cutting edge of how to improve itself. The thing about standing on the cutting edge though, is that it is very easy to cut your feet up. However, for all its faults, the show knows how to use its actors to the best of their ability. For that, the show will continue to grow, for better or worse.

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