TV Review: AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Season 6, Episodes 1 & 2
I started watching AMERICAN HORROR STORY back in 2011 because I wanted to see how Dylan McDermott had aged since The Practice and because it was a horror TV show on a premium cable channel that wasn’t about zombies or vampires. I’d quit The Walking Dead right at “Cherokee Rose” for the same reasons that a lot of TV critics love about that episode (though it was really Darabont’s absence that did it) and since I’d seen commercials for AMERICAN HORROR STORY during Archer, I’d figured I’d give it a shot.
I did not regret it. I loved everything about the show, though in particular I loved the gay couple Chad and Patrick (played by Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears) and what with Quinto having just come out, it was a thrill to see a gay man playing a gay character in a horror TV show! Obviously, I had no clue at the time that the show was the brainchild of Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee) or I would’ve been less surprised, though no less enchanted. The destiny of Chad and Patrick would come to define my relationship with AMERICAN HORROR STORY going forward.
SPOILER ALERT (for a season of TV that’s five years old): Chad and Patrick are one of the earliest characters to “die”. I was, naturally, annoyed by this. But, I thought, it didn’t make any sense for Ryan Murphy, of all people, to enforce that hoary of all horror tropes, “bury your gays“.
SPOILER ALERT AGAIN: All the main characters of the first season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY die. Everyone ends up just like Chad and Patrick. In this way, Murphy both followed the tropes of horror and subverted them. And their characters didn’t stop being important after they died. So I was actually very impressed. Unfortunately, a year later, I didn’t have cable anymore, so I wasn’t able to watch the second season. By the third season, I had lost interest. So here we are, three seasons later. I’m going to do an episode by episode recap as the season progresses, though because of difficulties involving login passwords, I’ll be doing a review of the first two episodes of the series, against the advice of a friend (you know who you are).
Let’s talk episode one, titled “Chapter 1.” And let’s zoom in for a second and talk about that title. A “chapter” is from a book. This is a TV show we’re watching. A TV show whose previous seasons are known for clever episode titles like “Tupperware Party Massacre” or “Bitchcraft”, so it’s notable that season 6, known as Roanoke, eschews this entirely, not just in favor of basic numbering, but for a format from an entirely different medium. It’s easy to interpret this as a signal that this season will be much different from previous ones.
And it establishes immediately that it is indeed. AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Roanoke is presented in the format of a reality show, with talking heads of the main characters narrating “true events” with actors doing a “dramatic reenactment” of those events. As the episode unravels, married couple Shelby and Matt Miller move into an old estate in North Carolina and proceed to experience all kinds of horrifying things, all narrated by Shelby and Matt themselves, as well as Matt’s sister Lee (who are all, of course, played by actors). This is meta as fuck and very hard to explain so bear with me. Unlike previous seasons, there are mysteries inside mysteries that immediately start to unravel during the first episode. For example, why are the two creepy ghost women lurking around the house dressed in mid-century nurses’ uniforms, yet the more immediate threat appears to be pig-obsessed backwoods Luddites? Why was the video tape of some guy being seemingly murdered by a pigman playing for Shelby and Lee in the basement when it was the aforementioned hillbillies who chased them down there?
Well, in episode two, Shelby runs into the hillbillies, who put pig parts on people they don’t like and cook them alive. It’s all so ridiculous looking that Shelby, like us, are convinced that someone is just trying to scare us and we’re not going to let them, nevermind that weird thing from last episode where the ground became alive. Except then Matt witnesses the nurse ghosts doing some really awful shit. Later, a ghost named Priscilla leads them to Dr Expositi-sorry, Cunningham’s refuge in the hidden cellar, where he explains (on yet another video tape) that the house had once housed a hospice care center run by two nurses who killed all their patience… but then disappeared, taken by some even more malevolent, mysterious force.
But here’s the really interesting mystery, why are the “real” Shelby and Matt telling subtly different stories from the reenactment? Do they not remember it exactly as it happened? Is there a disconnect between what is being told to us and what we’re seeing? Or is this just bad storytelling on the part of Ryan Murphy and his crew? But something tells me that’s not the case. It seems to me that Murphy is telling a ghost story about someone telling a ghost story, and that’s my FAVORITE kind of ghost story.
I considered the possibility that the story of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Roanoke is never going to break the barrier between the reality show and the dramatic recreation. What if the reality show format was simply a way for the showrunners to add novelty and padding to the show? But then I remember that first season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and how they killed the queer characters first, then killed off everyone else. Some say AMERICAN HORROR STORY is dumb, but it’s not so dumb it doesn’t know its Blair Witch from its Wicker Man.
– I’ve always been fond of pig-headed monsters, ever since my first legit “haunted house” experience during Six Flags Frightfest; the Terror Train, featuring Pigman! And then, of course, who can forget the climactic chainsaw duel in good ol’ Motel Hell?
– Moms are kinda crazy, Ryan Murphy seems to feel. Which, I mean, I agree, you gotta be mental to want to birth a child, especially since there’s a man who gets to be a father now and most of us should never be allowed that privilege.
– Nothing gets under my skin more effectively than helpless old people being murdered. All this Blair Witch stuff is fine but I just could not handle the bedside execution.
Reality TV format