American Horror Story – Managing Quality and Expectations

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American Horror Story is the television show that I am most critical of. It was never a series that I considered particularly good, but I’ve always enjoyed it; it was our “house show” at university so it was always fun just for the social aspect alone. But I’m very much in the post-uni stage of my life now, I have a salary, rent and a commute, yet I still find time to watch American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare every single week. It is the only series, outside of The Great British Bake Off, that I actively follow instead of waiting for the series to hit VoD and then bingeing. In this respect, it’s arguably my favourite show – but why I do I find myself unable to call it objectively good?

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Art style and set design are particularly strong throughout the series.

My critical distance from this season of American Horror Story is particularly perplexing because, when I break it down into it’s component parts, it’s brilliant on a technical level. Take for example the performances of Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley as colonial era Roanoke settlers Tomsyn “The Butcher” White and her son Ambrose. Kathy Bates is obviously a wonderful screen presence but there’s a particular delight found in watching her behead three misogynists with a meat cleaver. But beyond that “cool factor” Bates seems to be having so much fun in this role – her perma-sneer, northern accent (that falls just the right side of cheesy) and commanding presence all combine to create the most compelling villain American Horror Story has had since season one. Bentley plays off of Bates as her doting but, conflicted son. He manages to pull of the difficult task of seeming loyal to his kin, whilst actively working against her; it’s a more subtle performance that allows Bates to really chew the scenery and it works brilliantly.

I also want to draw attention to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance as the main character, Matthew Miller. I have never been Gooding Jr.’s biggest fan, but his construction of a very particular form of twenty first century masculinity is astonishing. On the surface Miller is the typical, vaguely hipster American man – he is calm, rational, kind and slightly geeky (shown through his technology skills throughout the season). The narrative of the first episode defines Miller as a victim, he’s passive in the face of more active and aggressive masculinities, and Cuba pulls this off brilliantly. But his performance also suggests an inner depth to Miller. Take for example episode three when he confronts a psychic and he suddenly throws a chair across the room; an open threat of the violence he would like to perform on the man ahead of him. The mask seems to slip and there’s the suggestion that deep down that Miller hides a deep aggression. Gooding Jr. is so multifaceted in his performance that is suggests that the character itself is also “performing” a masculine identity to mask something darker underneath.

The technical brilliance also extends into the realms of the thematic and visual. Despite being a secular person, I’m an absolute sucker for religious imagery done well and this is seen in throughout in episode three. As part of the colonial narrative, Thomsyn is exiled from her group for leading them astray; she is then sentenced to face God’s judgement alone in the forest. But as she is about to die, a strange voice offers to save her in return for eternal service. She is unbound and told to eat a raw boars heart. The shot of a small female hand outstretched holding the heart makes it look remarkably like an apple; immediately this calls reference to Eve and the temptation of the apple, and the original sin. It has a clear implication – Thomsyn was sent out by God to atone for her since, but became tempted by the devil. This is such a brilliant way to deal with these themes; it works with the canon of the bible, but is subtle enough to never actually state that the Butcher sells her soul to the literal devil. The concept of “original sin” and femininity as the downfall of man continues into the modern storyline too. Miller”s masculinity always seems to be weak in the face of empowered and/or sexualised femininity throughout the series – whether this is through his wife, his police officer sister (emasculating perhaps?) or the seduction of the same “devil” that has tempted The Butcher. These are wonderful, compelling themes to explore and suggest a depth to this season of American Horror Story, behind the surface shock, that wasn’t found in the earlier seasons.

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The cinematography and framing is often astonishing in American Horror Story: Roanoke

Everything I have to say about American Horror Story: Roanoke is absolutely glowing but I can’t definitely call it a good show. Despite how much I enjoy it, I can’t make any statement on quality because I’m so certain it’s going to jump the shark – American Horror Story always does. The season about demons resolved itself by aliens crawling out of Evan Peters arm. The “ghost house” season becomes a trope and everyone becomes a spirit at the end. The less said about Freak Show the better. American Horror Story is an anthology that lacks a single story with a coherent ending. Despite Roanoke being objectively good, I can’t reconcile it’s quality with the expectation that the next episode will be the 40 minutes where the season completely derails.

By the time this piece of writing is finished, proofread and formatted the next episode of American Horror Story will have aired in America. It will bring with it the season debut of Evan Peters and Frances Conroy, and I dare say more concept for the season to juggle. Don’t get me wrong, I love this show even at it’s worst – it’s always enjoyable – I just desperately hope it maintains the form it has hit in these initial episodes. I want more scripts that allow Kathy Bates to chew the scenery and Cuba Gooding Jr. to explore what it is to be a man. I want more exploration of real world themes of gender theory and religion through the horror narrative. My issue is, I don’t believe these things will continue to come; the consistency thus far has been a pleasant surprise. My cogntive dissonance between enjoyment and expectation is unable to be resolved.

In conclusion, American Horror Story: Roanoke is my favourite thing on television at the moment but I am unable to confidently call it the best show on TV. The first third of the season has been brilliant, but it remains to be seen whether the ideas being explored will be neatly resolved by episode ten. After all, we know a twist is coming and with it plenty of opportunity to jump the shark yet again.

 

 

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