“In order for me to ‘acknowledge’ the ‘irony’, I’d have to learn two new words today.” – Police Officer, The Life and Times of Tim, S01E01
We’re now four weeks into American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare, and I gotta say, for once, I’m actually pretty high on this show. Especially after the disaster that was Hotel, I see so much potential in the next six episodes of Roanoke – a feeling I haven’t had about this show since the very beginning of Freakshow… and we all know how that ended up. So, although I worry about putting too much stock into a strong start, as Horror Story usually finds a way to destroy all narrative coherence by the end of any given season, I’m hopeful that this can be a season of progression. There’s a lot of factors at play in making Roanoke successful. Let’s break them down.
Less Time = Tighter Plotting
This is the shortest season of Horror Story so far. Down from the twelve or thirteen episode counts of the past, Roanoke will only feature ten chapters, and each one (at least so far) is kept to a regular 40-45 minute run time. This is substantially less content than past installments of the show, which gives the writers less room to maneuver. While this may sound like a bad thing, for a show like AHS, it makes the creative team focus more. For instance, in Hotel, a season featuring 12 episodes that generally would go over an hour, there became so many loose threads of plot, that by the end of the season, there was no way to resolve even half of them. Instead, the show devolved into a narrative muddle of sex, drugs, and violence that ultimately made little sense, and despite such extended screentime, wasn’t able to deliver any truly memorable characters arcs. This is a classic problem that shows can suffer from when there’s not enough plot to fit a longer episode order. Take Mr. Robot season two – featuring two more episodes than the first and multiple extra-long episodes. The second season had a lot of irrelevant plot, spun its wheels frequently, and in many extended episodes, could get a little dull by the end. It was the same for American Horror Story. However, now that the running time has been so shortened, the writers are forced to narrow the scope, focus more on the main characters, and tell a singular plot. Four episodes in, they’ve managed to keep the story together, only going off on tangents when they’re necessary to the main plot.
Fewer Stars, Fewer Threads, Stronger Characters
The characters of Roanoke are very straight forward. We have the TV re-enactments of Shelby, Matt, and Lee. We have the real Shelby, Matt, and Lee. We have the Roanoke spirits, led by Kathy Bates. We have Denis O’Hare’s mysterious mad researcher, and we have Lady Gaga’s supernatural forest entity at the center of it all. Unlike seasons past, all of these characters are central to the same story line, as well as that there just aren’t that many characters! We have very clear cut protagonists and antagonists, as well as a small cast of supporting stars that add flavor and fun to each episode (RIP Cricket). In addition, Lady Gaga isn’t actually a star of this season – she’s just playing Scathach, a forest demon who is featured as a “special guest star.” This way, Gaga doesn’t actually have to act, and can instead just focus on being scary, sexy, and adding to the fun of the show. Adding to those bonuses is Kathy Bates playing a real villain for the first time in Horror Story history (LaLaurie was a villain as well, but spent so much time meandering around it still felt like a waste of Bates’s skills). As Thomasin “The Butcher” White, she’s used as a fantastic terrifying spirit queen, even if she does have to use a rather ridiculous accent. We have yet to find out who Evan Peters or Cheyenne Jackson will be, but within the rules of this season, it shouldn’t be too far fetched to the point that it begins to distract from the main plot.
Playing With Format
The format for Roanoke is to show the characters in a dramatized paranormal documentary setting. Though it’s shlocky and can take away from the tension of horror scenes sometimes, it allows the show to play within a format more. Suddenly, there are rules to the show that it has to follow through on, and at least in the early goings, they’ve done a good job sticking to form. Additionally though, by starting with the documentary structure, AHS can begin to eat away at the way it’s working as the season progresses. There’s no way that this paranormal documentary can last the rest of the story, so as they begin to break the bonds between what’s “real” and what isn’t, it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with all that they’ve set up. Actor Matt and Shelby are bound to meet the real Matt and Shelby, causing new main characters to ostensibly enter the fray despite us having watched them as actors in the past. It’s a fun way of telling the story, and as we get deeper into the show, I have hopes that they can actually maneuver the documentary into the overall plot.
More Awareness in Writing
A major problem I had in the fourth and fifth seasons of AHS was that the creative team seemed to forget that inherently, AHS is a show made to be campy, scary, and overall, fun. It’s not a show that can handle the artfulness or drama of a miniseries like The Night Of or Fargo. That’s what made the second season of AHS so great: they embraced the madness of the show, and by doing this, actually made more artful television than when the show took itself 100% seriously. Especially in Hotel, the writing lacked the charm, wit, or irony of earlier seasons, making it an unwatchable mess. Roanoke is the opposite. Even just by the nature of the paranormal documentary format or the title “My Roanoke Nightmare,” it’s easy to see that the writers are having more fun with this season. The violence is more ridiculous, and despite the darkness of the story, it feels more tongue and cheek. For instance, in the last act of episode four, there’s a brief introduction to a dumb Uber driver who gives a small testimonial. It’s a funny little cutaway, and can be representative of this season as a whole. The writers are allowing themselves to have more fun, break some format barriers, and overall, just let go for the sake of story.
It’s bad to get your hopes up about American Horror Story. It’s almost like a relationship – in the beginning, the honeymoon phase, you can’t get enough of how fun the person is. You think they have a great sense of humor, they’re imaginative, and spending time together is like a roller coaster. However, unless this is the one season of AHS that’s marriage worthy, it may go the way that past seasons have gone, when the relationship turns sour after the fifth or sixth date, and you suddenly realize how crazy this person is, and how inconsistent their personality can be.
For now, I’m very much in the honeymoon phase, and maybe, just maybe, this is the one. I just hope Roanoke doesn’t turn my feelings around as we spend more time together.