Narrative Contentiousness in "American Horror Story"

The sometimes-acclaimed and popular FX TV series "American Horror Story" recently opened its fifth season, Hotel. It has many of the hallmarks of doing TV right, and yet my experience tells me that, like HBO’s "True Detective" or any number of vaguely mysterious contemporary shows, "American Horror Story" (AHS) is often adamantly defended by viewers who cannot entirely pinpoint why it’s good.

I lost AHS at some point during its second season, Asylum. I tried the third, Coven. I recently picked the show back up to test out the fourth season, Freak Show, as it arrived on Netflix streaming. While I enjoyed Freak Show more than I have any of the seasons following the first, it suffered from the same messy narrative hodgepodge that defined the others (and perhaps defines Hotel). How is it that so many elements and character arcs work? In Asylum, you layer horror atop horror, for instance, when it certainly seems the series would be more coherent and powerful with one or two.

From memory, in that second season, you get an old asylum (sufficiently disturbing), layer on a set of Catholic nuns (again, sufficiently disturbing), layer on demonic/Satanic possession of a kid (right), layer on a transfer of that possession to one of the junior nuns (terribly disturbing), layer on a Nazi eugenics doctor in hiding (um), layer on that the Nazi is breeding scifi monsters and interacting with aliens (what?), layer on an interracial couple and alien abduction (…), layer on a serial killer who decorates his home with human remains (wait), and so on. Add, of course, that the show tries to keep you invested in roughly the same number of characters as the number of the episodes in the season.

How does it work? I don’t think it does. Can the skeptics be convinced? Should they?

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