tv review

American Horror Story Season 6: Did the Mystery Pay Off?

L-R: Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. Photo: FX

After a marketing campaign that kept plot details shrouded in cryptic, creepy, sometimes spidery mystery, American Horror Story Season Six: We’re Still Not 100 Percent Sure Where This Is Going, Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz finally debuted Wednesday night on FX. Okay, okay, that’s not the actual title, although last night’s AHS did feature heavy Mercedes promotion. (Are they trying to sell luxury vehicles by making us a little afraid of them?)

Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and the team at FX used the element most crucial to the horror genre — that of surprise — to spring this new season on the public, sight unseen by TV critics. The only problem with that approach was that once that first episode began and viewers slowly realized what the season’s focus would be — a haunting related to the Lost Colony of Roanoke — it became clear that there wasn’t anything surprising about that choice.

The true story of the roughly 100 North Carolina colonists who vanished into thin air back in the late 1500s was referenced all the way back in the “Murder House” season of AHS, causing some to speculate that’s what season two would be about. (Instead, season two was about nuns and Nazis and aliens and a serial killer called Bloody Face. Which should have been obvious.) In retrospect, then, I wonder if the real reason for promoting this season as though it were hidden inside one of J.J. Abrams’s mystery boxes was that its subtitle — My Roanoke Nightmare — and theme might have seemed too predictable if shared in advance.

Personally, I liked not knowing exactly what to expect when I turned on FX last night at 10 p.m. A number of people on Twitter, on the other hand, seemed confused by where the story was going and, by the end of the hour, frustrated that certain AHS traditions had not been honored. “Why haven’t we heard the theme song yet?” some complained, while others, backed by the power of a well-chosen GIF, flat-out panicked. “Where the hell is Evan Peters?” they cried.

That’s the funny thing about the horror genre: We want it to shock us with the unexpected, but we also crave the familiarity of its well-worn tropes and techniques. American Horror Story fully understands that and operates on that understanding, but it’s also now in a position, six seasons in, where it’s feeling potentially well-worn, too. After borrowing from so many scary movie subgenres and real-life creep-outs — the freak show, the slasher flick, the haunted hotel, the witch hunt, voodoo’s juju — it’s natural to wonder if it’s run out of conceits on which to riff.

In response, at least in its first episode, American Horror Story has gone back to its beginnings and decided to riff on itself by presenting  the inverse of the story it told in season one. Instead of following a white couple that moves into an unnecessarily large, historically significant home in L.A., we follow, instead, a mixed-race couple that leaves L.A. after a racially motivated attack and moves into an unnecessarily large, historically significant house in North Carolina.

But American Horror Story isn’t just referencing itself this season, it’s also referencing its limited-series cousin, American Crime Story. By presenting My Roanoke Nightmare as a true story — one told in documentary fashion, with one actor playing each “real” person in talking-head interviews and another playing the same person in fictionalized reenactments — AHS is slyly winking at that other, much-talked-about series in the Ryan Murphy-verse. It’s winking extra-aggressively by tackling race and by casting Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the flashback versions of married protagonists Shelby and Matt, mere months after we watched them as Marcia Clark and O.J. Simpson in The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

Of course, other classic horror bleeds its way into this season, too. There’s at least one hallucination in a hallway moment that calls to mind The Shining, while the whole “based on a true story” conceit is ripped from oldies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Bigfoot pseudo-doc The Legend of Boggy Creek, and the more recent The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 indie into-the-woods shocker that was inspired, in part, by Boggy Creek. Those stick figures that suddenly appear throughout Shelby and Matt’s house in the premiere are straight out of Blair Witch, so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that American Horror Story was engaging in product placement for the Blair Witch sequel that’s opening tomorrow. (Hey, know what will save you from the Blair Witch? A Mercedes Benz.)

All of that is clever, but after watching last night’s episode, I’m still not sure whether this season can accomplish what earlier seasons of American Horror Story and this summer’s Stranger Things did: spin all those embedded references into something engrossingly new.

One of the problems of the documentary-style approach is that it automatically sucks some of the tension out of what we’re watching. If Lily Rabe as Shelby and André Holland as Matt are talking to camera about the freaky stuff that happened to them, we already know, by default, that they lived through whatever they experienced. When they encounter dicey situations — as Shelby did repeatedly, often by doing stupid stuff like deciding to soak in a hot tub alone in pitch blackness while living in an isolated area — we assume that they’re only going to face a limited amount of danger since we can see with our own eyes that they survived. I also had issues with the Pig Man that appears on that random videotape in the basement; he seems more ridiculous than scary. And, even though people in horror movies do this all the time, I firmly believe that Angela Bassett, who plays the flashback version of Matt’s ex-cop sister Lee, is way too smart to go into a basement during a moment of extreme terror.

On the other hand, any show where Bassett says things like, “I may not have my badge, but Mama’s still packin,’” is something I feel like I need to keep watching. It’s also possible, as some writers and viewers have suggested on Twitter, that AHS season six may attempt to tell a completely different story each week, in the vein of the godfather of horror anthology series, The Twilight Zone. That would be intriguing and definitely a delicious surprise.

At this very moment, though, American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare, if that’s what we’re officially calling it, hasn’t fully convinced me it’s going to be a consistent season of must-watch thrills and chills. But it piqued my interest enough last night to keep me coming back for the next week or two at least. It did that by doing the same thing as its marketing campaign: keeping just enough detail in the shadows so that, even though it may not be a good idea, we can’t help ourselves from venturing further into the woods to determine what’s really out there.

American Horror Story: Did the Mystery Pay Off?