FX teased dozens of different possible themes and settings for the sixth season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story for months. So to land here — a haunted farmhouse in North Carolina — feels like anything but a dramatic reveal. Haven't we been here before?
surprise! it's another haunted house
The story actually starts in Los Angeles, where Murder House (season one) and Hotel (season five) took place. A random assault leads to a miscarriage and the urge to start again somewhere new and vaguely creepy — a dimly lit patch of the South, just as it was in Coven (season three) and Freak Show (season four). There's some anxiety about the central interracial marriage surviving in an inhospitable, violently conservative environment — a lot like the pilot for Asylum (season two). Our female lead Shelby has "a feeling of danger" but keeps mum and smiley, while her husband asks — without really caring — why the going price for the white clapboard Faulkner setting he wants to buy is so low. It's identical to the setup for Murder House, right down to the bald-faced fertility symbolism.
The flashy new element in the American Horror Story recipe is that each main character is played by two different actors. Shelby is a sardonically sweet Sarah Paulson in a chintzy documentary's dramatic reenactments and a straight-faced Lily Rabe who provides the doc's voiceover in the present. Shelby's husband Matt is played by The Knick's Andre Holland in the present, and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the past. It's a structural conceit that helps the show handily address its insane population problem. Much like a middle school play with more actors than parts, they've found a way to double cast every role.
More strikingly: in the reenactments Angela Bassett plays Matt's sister Lee, an embittered and harsh former criminal psychologist struggling with sobriety. Her counterpart, The Newsroom's Adina Porter, is nearly 15 years younger than her and perpetually on the brink of tears. It makes the whole landscape feel slightly off, like maybe there's a catch. The Ghost Adventures formatting also has the effect of making Matt and Shelby's tragedies feel acutely tacky and contrived, but as usual with AHS, it's not clear and probably won't become clear whether this is the point.
its best trick is making you wait for a point that rarely comes
The horrors come quick and hard, though, something you can always say about AHS even when you can't say anything else. Twenty minutes into this pilot and we're already seeing ghosts, a "rainstorm" of human teeth, and a bloodied wild pig on the doorstep. Matt and Shelby assume some local rednecks who wanted to buy the farmhouse out from under them are responsible and then squabble over whether to fight back. While the rednecks were pretty rough-looking, this is such a ridiculous assumption that I almost wonder if it's a half-hearted commentary on the irrational classist paranoias of urban liberals.
The couple, while dumb, is also boring. Even the ways in which they betray the one-in-a-million connection they profess to have are uninteresting — Shelby guiltily admits to relishing "alone time" to work on her yoga, Matt takes some convincing before he believes that a man with a pitchfork and torch nearly drowned her in the hot tub. Around 400 Chekhov's guns about their relationship are sprinkled over the episode — the pig Matt buries without mentioning it, the twitch in his eye when a cop asks him if his wife imbibes, dozens of brand-new security cameras, the miscarriage nobody talks about after minute five, and the literal gun Lee keeps locked upstairs "where it belongs." I'm already exhausted thinking about how the elements will collide to pull these two apart (we already know their "nightmare" is not going to kill them, so the tragedy has to come from somewhere). Who cares? But also: who needs another story like that?
'ahs' can still be fun
Of course, the premiere has its share of fun signature Murphy absurdities, too. The monster we catch a glimpse of is some kind of pig-man (sort of like the pig-man in Murder House) and somebody keeps leaving little dolls all over the place and hanging unasked-for yarn decor around Shelby and Matt's house. It's very True Detective season one and Blair Witch Project vibes! Shelby wears at least 47 really good sweaters. She's also perpetually knocking back nearly fuchsia glasses of rosé in a side-braid and Birkenstocks, which is definitely a turn we haven't seen Paulson take before. The episode ends with Paulson knocking her car into Kathy Bates by way of introduction and then wandering into the woods, where she finds some kind of Lost Colony-reenactment witch circle led by Wes Bentley. The witches are men! I like it. Also, I've been to Roanoke recently and can confirm that there really is a lot of community theatre.
In between these moments of fun, the episode is a bit of a slog — unbroken even by a new version of that great theme song or an appearance from AHS darling Evan Peters (which Twitter noted, viciously). It's hard to believe it was just five years ago that Murder House debuted and felt like the beginning of something huge. Despite its insane tangents (see: pig-man monster), Murder House told a complete story with crystal-clear intentions. It inverted woman-loathing tropes from horror classics like Rosemary's Baby and it roasted that nasty American morality which insists men do literally anything to live in their dream homes and "provide" for their families, whether or not they maintain an honest emotional connection to them. The bitter, gruesome finale even aired three days before Christmas, a network-sponsored potshot at American sentimentality and consumerism that should go down as legend.
jessica lange was the show's reason to exist
Now, AHS is flailing without its pillar: Jessica Lange and her probably unparalleled ability to play monstrous, pathetic, powerful, maternal, and demi-goddess all within the space of three minutes on-screen. She was the raison d'être for American Horror Story, and without her it feels like the show chases ghosts of ideas and Grand Statements as much as it chases jump-scares and goofy noises that subtitlers have chosen to call "inhuman yelling." Even the perpetually Emmy-nominated workhorse Paulson can't begin to carry the same gravity.
It also feels like a show that finally lived up to a doubting public's expectations for it — all shock and sex and body horror without a cause. Long before Lange exited, Murphy and Co. were well into the habit of serving up a garbled mash of scary things and sort-of statements, and hoping that think-piecers would sort through it for them. But even when Coven collapsed under the weight of its two-dozen plot lines and bonkers racial stereotypes, the fact that it was a primetime star vehicle for a trio of legendary women in their late fifties and sixties felt worth it in its own way. Six years in, it's becoming increasingly unclear why American Horror Story still exists.
American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare airs at 10PM on Wednesdays on FX.