In defense of the structuring of American Horror Story?
Matt Sautman’s recent article on the popular and strange FX series "American Horror Story" and its new sixth season, Roanoke, prompted me to again pose a reasonable question about the program. Mostly, from a narrative standpoint, I’ve not heard or read any persuasive argument for what makes the series good.
I suppose part of it is contemporary and topical – horror, in the form of ghosts and zombies and whatnot, is a saleable cultural commodity today. But what I don’t understand is how the program works narratively. I appreciated the first season, which seemed straightforward by comparison, to what followed and what we’re seeing today in Roanoke. Asylum, Coven, Hotel, and Freak Show introduce a complex cacophony of characters, motivations, conflicts, and arcs. Some of the best and most acclaimed TV introduces a full cast and varying conflicts, but the seasons of The Wire or Girls or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad don’t push such radical variance in the characters and dynamics.
I wanted very much to enjoy Asylum. But, as an example of the sort of narrative problem in each season I’m describing, Asylum layers horror on horror on horror on horror ad nauseam. As I wrote before, 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.
Again, I don’t see that Coven, Hotel, Freak Show, or Roanoke did anything all that differently, from a narrative convention. Sautman can use it as a pop culture vehicle to critique racial politics in the US, but I would like someone to address the program and its structure, its coherence. I mean it seems as if the writers choose a setting and then have the team brainstorm everything horrible that might occur in that setting, even if those horrible things might not fit the genre evoked by the setting (e.g., devil-possessed nuns and Nazis and