What is the theme of the new American Horror Story?
That was the question that we’ve been naughtily teased with these last few months, with FX not only keeping nearly every single detail of the sixth installment of the franchise under wraps, from cast to plot to level of Lady Gaga involvement, but purposefully sending fans on wild goose chases for answers, with the network releasing a series of red herring teasers for the new season, which finally began Wednesday night.
Still we had guesses.
Is it about spiders crawling into your spine? Eyeballs that you suck on like Jolly Ranchers? Creepy rural farms where smokestacks billow into perfectly artistic promo spots? Or, as a last-ditch guess mere seconds before the season premiered, does the theme have something to do with the new Mercedes-Benz cars lit by moody-red chandeliers Ryan Murphy was giving away in a sweepstakes?
Are you, winner Miranda W. from Oklahoma, a clue to this year’s theme of American Horror Story?
Or maybe it’s about the Blair Witch. Or a Keeping Up With the Kardashians spin on thrills. Based on the just-revealed title, My Roanoke Nightmare, it could be that this season is about my 2005 senior week road trip to the Outer Banks where no one would sell us alcohol and Karen wouldn’t speak to Anthony. (#TBT.)
Just kidding. It appears that this new season of American Horror Story is an arguably clever spin on the “It Happened to Me” re-enactment shows that have swarmed our TV screens on channels like TLC and Investigation Discovery.
All in all, it was an appetite-whetting premiere episode, chock-full of Ryan Murphy favorites like Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, and AHS newcomer The Juice himself, Cuba Gooding Jr., in perilous situations and even more chuck-full of exposition, narrated by Lily Rabe, Andre Holland, and Adina Porter.
We mock because, with the oftentimes frustrating, presumably buzz-generating insistence that everything about this season be shrouded in mystery, expectations for what could be brewing in Ryan Murphy’s mind spiked through the roof. After asylums and covens and haunted houses and creepy clowns and Lady Gaga as a vampire, what could be next?
Turns out, I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant mixed with a little Blair Witch Project is the cocktail we’re being served. At first glance, it’s a little bottom shelf, and a questionable pairing of brands. But it’s got a nice kick to it. Maybe after a few more rounds, we’ll come to find that it will do the job. At the moment though, we wonder whether it’s time to move on to another bar.
While most seasons of American Horror Story tend to peak with stylish, often terrifying premiere episodes and then devolve into bouts of lunacy that most of us would leap away from were it not for the acting bonanza going on from the likes of Paulson, Bassett, and Kathy Bates—who we get a brief Roanoke glimpse of in the last act of Wednesday’s premiere—this season seems to be taking the Netflix approach: Trust the creator, trust the genre, and stick around through the slow start because there’s more exciting, rewarding content to come.
At least we hope there’s more to come, because Wednesday night’s premiere was almost entirely exposition.
We first meet Shelby and Matt in Kardashian-style confessionals to the camera, recounting for us a terrible experience they had. Shelby is played by Lily Rabe and Matt by Andre Holland. In dramatic re-enactments, it’s Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing the couple.
After Matt is mugged on the streets of Los Angeles, a trauma that causes Shelby to miscarry their baby, they escape to the woods of Roanoke to re-center, falling in love with a goddamn creepy old mansion that they purchase on a whim and a death wish (clearly they haven’t seen this show).
The first sign we get that things might be off in the house—and the first butt of the season!—comes when Shelby and Matt (Paulson and Gooding Jr., in re-enactment) are making love in their new, dusty, creaky, absolutely-going-to-be-haunted-what-were-you-thinking-buying-it house. Weird croaking sounds interrupt them, and garbage is strewn about outside. Maybe it’s the rednecks who lost the auction when Matt bought the house, they assume.
Matt goes to travel to work. Shelby goes for a dip in their hot tub. Shit goes down, because duh.
Cue an anxiety-inducing sequence in which Shelby is assaulted in the water, shot in a simultaneously blunt and artistically withholding manner that recalls the horrifying first attack scene of Jaws.
She thinks she’s been attacked by people in old-timey costumes, carrying torches. Everyone thinks she’s insane.
Matt has to leave for work again, but being the plot-adhering husband that he is, he installs surveillance cameras and calls his sister, Lee (Porter in confessionals, Bassett in re-enactments), to watch over Shelby while he’s gone. Lee was fired from her job as a cop for being a pill addict. She also hates Shelby. Luckily they have a home invasion from 16th century missing persons to bond over.
Yes, while Matt is gone someone—or some people—sneak into the house, lure Lee and Shelby into the basement, and string Blair Witch-style stick things all over the house while they’re down there trying not to pee themselves.
Shelby freaks and hops into the car and drives away, and, in the scariest moment of the show, accidentally crashes into Kathy Bates. Kathy Bates runs into the woods, apparently unharmed from the crash, luring Shelby behind her and directly to a spooky clearing in the woods where the ground pulses, the cinematographer makes the camera shake in unsettling ways, and the old Roanoke people are there with torches and vaguely bleeding heads.
Cut to black.
What is going on? We still don’t know. But we can surmise that this season has something to do with the lost colony of Roanoke. And also haunted houses in the woods. And also Sarah Paulson’s fabulous extensions.
In a way, the reality TV handheld approach, for all the mystery of this season, is about the most surprising thing these creators could do with this series. With each successive year, it seemed as if American Horror Story was getting more stylized, arguably to the point of style over substance with last year's gorgeous—if narratively thin—Hotel season.
Aesthetically, this is a complete 180 from that. And, choosing to brand the installment with an “Inspired by a True Story” chryon, the series is wading into risky—but potentially rewarding—real-life waters, which, to this guy, tends to be far more chilling than the supernatural and easily dismissed. At the very least, it’s playing fast and loose with Fargo’s true-crime success.
It’s a wonder what FX and Ryan Murphy have managed to do with this series. Here is a franchise—a “universe,” to borrow a word from the comic book realm—that has managed to make fans rabid for tidbits and details, delight in mystery, and obsessively piece together clues as to how all six seasons are related, and do it all off of a brand that is wholly original, with no source material at all.
My Roanoke Nightmare is a fascinating new direction in that mission. We’re not sure quite yet if we’re applauding the new direction; to be quite honest, we found the premiere to be so heavy on explanation that we were slightly bored. But we are on board with the expansion of this universe.
Has Shelby found “The Lost Colony?” Has American Horror Story lost the plot? As of now, like almost everything to do with American Horror Story Season Six, it’s still a mystery.