Sep 15, 2016

Channel Surfing: American Horror Story:: My Roanoke Nightmare - "Chapter 1"

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
If you have watched TV in the past two months, there is a good chance that you've seen in some capacity ads for the new season of American Horror Story. It's hard to forget them, especially with their striking appearance and the cryptic prose that refused to reveal anything about the season to come. Creator Ryan Murphy has been an expert on raising interest of a show that has become divisive in quality over the years, promising that at least the premieres will draw in curious eyes. Considering that he's coming off of the best in a few years with season five, dubbed Hotel, what does he have in store for season six? Is it alien abductions or monsters on train tracks? While there's only been one episode so far, the answer looks to be far less supernatural. It is a story inspired by the real life Roanoke Colony disappearances of the 1590's.
Speaking as each season tends to have a different style along with theme, there's not a lot to be shocked with in the broad sense. The first episode does have a fair amount of supernatural elements, though they're buried under a mature sense of realism. In fact, most of the first episode has little horror at all. Through the guise of a true crime series called My Roanoke Nightmare, the story is told through recreations and talking heads about a mysterious event in Roanoke Island, North Carolina in regards to an interracial couple who are treated without hospitality. Slowly the chaos begins to unwind with dead pigs on doorsteps, occult designs in tree branches, and possible attempted murders,
What's probably the most interesting thing about season six, dubbed Roanoke, is that it takes the familiar themes in a different direction. Filled with true crime story aesthetic and found footage camerawork, the show embraces aspects of haunted houses, the occult, and even racial politics. These are all themes that the show has explored in the past and with a variety of actual success. In some cases, Murphy's campy sensibility ends up hurting the show and causing a moment meant to be profound to come across as boneheaded racism. It's surreal and impulsive in ways that make for good yet controversial art. Considering that Murphy also is dabbling in the far more eccentric Scream Queens and literal true crime melodrama American Crime Story, it does seem like American Horror Story has been condensed back to horror simply because Murphy has other outlets.
It's hard to tell if this will actually be an aspect that sticks. The talking heads may add a structure to the series, but it also causes certain aspects to drag. The show cannot go 10 minutes without having talking heads discuss the scene. It is fine, but it causes the drama and tension to feel disjointed. It feels like a cheap recreation of something greater and more familiar. It could just be that the show, for the first time, spent all of its first episode in the mode of set-up. There wasn't any jump scares or necessarily moments on par with Hotel's strange erotic vampires and kooky hotel workers. It was something almost stripped down in the vein of something that Murphy likely watched while preparing for American Crime Story.
With that said, the writing is good enough to hook you. Despite being a slow episode with a lot of puzzling yet not necessarily gripping tools at its disposal, it does end with a note of intrigue. With the wife (Sarah Paulson) escaping to safety and hitting a random woman holding a butcher knife (Kathy Bates), the show begins to incorporate the occult with more consistency. The episode ends with a strange set of images that include shaking grounds and a dismembered body. It's horrific in the way that American Horror Story probably should be but often has been too squeamish to meld with its otherwise campy tone. It grabs the viewer and suggests that this season is different. The only question beyond this is how.
Considering that the show has already done an occult themed season before (season three, dubbed Coven), it will have to find new ways to grab the audience. Thankfully, there are some ways that it could work. The format does have promise, if limited appeal. The trustworthy cast is mostly in tact for this season with the promise of more familiar names to come. New names like The Knick's Andre Holland are a welcomed addition. Along with premiering almost a month earlier than normal, there's hope that this season will be different. The only question is if it will be for the better, or is Murphy likely to just fall back on his old predictable ways? Much like every season, that's part of the fun of finding out.

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