This show isn’t new (Seasons 1-3 – the only ones available on Australian Netflix – aren’t anyway), but I warned you that at times this wouldn’t be particularly current.
I’m always up for a scare, but being with someone who doesn’t like horror movies limits my opportunities to indulge in the genre. Seeing American Horror Story on the Netflix menu presented me with said opportunity – 40 minute-ish episodes? Perfect. No idea of what to expect despite the show having existed for a while? Even better!
Skimming through Google to learn whether or not it was worth investing my time in, I was confused to discover that the show had been created by the people who made Glee, and while I’ve never seen that show either, I wondered just how much of a horror story it could be if that was the case. I also came across review aggregation sites that praised the show, so I thought ‘why not?’ and got straight into Season 1: Murder House.
That’s an enjoyable aspect of the show – each season is its own complete tale, and watching one doesn’t affect the story or require watching of any of the others. Still, it’s probably good to watch them in order anyway, and I’ll explain why.
Murder House starts off well, and carries darkness throughout. It’s psychological, it’s supernatural, it’s got a good mix of jump-scares and squirmy discomfort but overall knows its limits. The family dealing with their own demons as well as those in the house, the gimp suit, the maid, the ghosts, the violence, it moves well. Yes, there are moments that were a bit ‘teen-angsty’ but hey, the writers are appealing to a broad demographic, and for the most part they did it well. Even the ending isn’t particularly disappointing. Season One wraps it up semi-convincingly, even if by the end the scares have really started to thin out by the final few episodes.
Still with a decent amount of enthusiasm, it was on to Season 2: Asylum. Jessica Lange, after more of a supporting role in the first season, comes into her own as the maniacal Sister Jude, and this season starts off at a cracking pace as well. Evil nuns, possession by the devil, Nazi doctors, serial killers, aliens, mixed in with a healthy dose of insanity and a bunch of monsters in the woods? After the first few episodes I thought that this season outranked its predecessor by leaps and bounds. It was dark, there were twists, and I’ll never hear the song ‘Dominique’ again without instantly thinking back to Briarcliffe.
Unfortunately it’s toward the end of Season 2 that things start to go wrong. The monsters in the woods are just people with TB (??) the Nazi doctor goes out with a whimper, the aliens NEVER GET EXPLAINED, there’s A FREAKING MUSICAL NUMBER and worst of all, the brilliantly evil villain gets a redemption story. All the remotely horrific things are explained away or redeemed, leaving you with an emptiness and regret that you didn’t stop watching at about episode 10. No doubt it’s nice if you like happy endings, but the show is called American HORROR Story. It’s like they got about halfway through and realised they couldn’t fill all the episodes they’d been allotted, so instead of cutting back the order they went about adding nonsense to get them over the line. It’s like when you’re writing an essay at Uni and you’re still 500 words short and completely out of ideas.
Like a glutton for punishment, I went back for Season 3: Coven. I found things to enjoy about this season – although most of them were Kathy Bates. A centuries-old racist with a penchant for truly brutal violence? Fantastic. That Minotaur scene was great. Voodoo and witchcraft weren’t as enticing thematically as the first two seasons, but they had their moments.
There were plenty of things to dislike about this season as well, though. Lily Rabe had some good roles in the first two seasons but her character in this was fucking stupid. Emma Roberts was perpetually annoying, as was Evan Peters in this season. Once again Coven felt a few episodes too long. They could have done it in half the number and made it far more directed and compelling. The worst part of it all was the introduction of Stevie Knicks. ‘Witch’ or not, she didn’t need to be there, and the fact she was allowed to do two entire musical numbers further emphasises that the writers were running out of ideas. It’s far more camp and PG-13 than the two preceding seasons.
That’s the biggest problem with American Horror Story. Each season gets weaker the longer it goes and new characters are introduced in the middle of seasons that have little bearing on the overall narrative other than adding a few more minutes to go into something irrelevant. This might work well if each season wasn’t supposed to be a rounded-out tale, but they are and it doesn’t.
My other biggest grievance with AHS is personal. I get that the idea of dead babies is supposed to be discomforting, especially since I recently became a father. In the first season, with an abortion clinic in the basement, you get why there’s that dead baby undertone, but every season after that has at least one scene where something horrific just has to happen to an infant. Irrespective of my own feelings it often seemed completely superfluous and was employed as a device for shock value rather than to achieve anything.
As well as the strength in the first few episodes of every season, AHS also did well with their Halloween episodes – which were always double eps. Once again, though, these didn’t always feel tied to the overall narrative of the season, although you could tell that more effort went into them than some of the later episodes.
More through compulsion than desire, I also went on to watch Season 4: Freak Show, which isn’t currently on Australian Netflix and hence won’t affect this review. It was truly appalling, and if I factored that into my overall rating, it would lose even more points. Given the consistency of the trajectory, I can only assume that Season 5 is truly, truly awful.
IN CONCLUSION: American Horror Story lives up to its name less and less as the season progress. There are good themes and some good performances from the likes of Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Zach Quinto and Dylan McDermott, but they aren’t enough to save a lack of direction in the later episodes of every season. The darkness of the first season is respectable, but by the end of the third you wouldn’t think you’re watching the same show.
THE GOOD: Every season starts strong, contains scares and has disturbing scenes, the Halloween episodes are also enjoyable. The theme song is creepy too.
THE BAD: A true lack of direction by the end and a desire for ‘happy endings’. Emma Roberts is poor and the teen drama angle that becomes more prevalent in Season Three is also annoying.
Season 1 – Murder House: 7.5/10
Season 2 – Asylum: 6/10
Season 3 – Coven: 3/10