Nov 17, 2016

TV Retrospective: "American Horror Story:: Roanoke"

After six seasons, what is there really to expect from the FX series American Horror Story? It is largely known for being a train wreck whose main highlight is expecting the unexpected. It's almost a miracle if the season could reach its conclusion without making leaps in logic with campy results. It's a pro as well as a con, especially since the show's previous two seasons (subtitled Freak Show and Hotel) were stylistic triumphs with middling stories. However, the sixth season featured something that most of the previous few years had lacked. It was scary. More than that, it was an ambitious kind of absurdity that played well into its truncated run. The show explored true crimes series, found footage tropes, and reality TV. Whether or not Ryan Murphy and co. were pulling from their other hit 2016 series American Crime Story has yet to be determined. However, the season subtitled Roanoke ran its messy, messy course with a gravitas not seen in years. If it wasn't the series best, it was one of its most exemplary of throwing everything at the wall.
The way to judge American Horror Story's success is attempting to summarize the season. The more conventional that it sounds, the less successful that it likely was. In the case of Roanoke, it would be difficult to summarize in a sentence or even a paragraph. The central conflict did take place in Roanoke, North Carolina. However, it was a deceptive story that changed week-to-week. It started as a true crime story that was a tad boring. Then it evolved into the reenactment cast living together. Then it turned into a found footage-style discovery of the house. The last two episodes alone feature enough twists to rank alongside season two, or Asylum's, homicidal Santa Claus and the somehow-alive-decades-later Anne Frank (yes, that one).
The season is arguably too sporadic and incoherent to be a masterpiece of the miniseries format. However, it is one of the finest achievements of the series. By putting aside all conventions, the show managed to revel in a madness that wasn't keen on theatrics. In fact, most episodes ran shorter than the average length of Freak Show and Hotel. It was about graphic violence and melodramatic acting. It was about not knowing what would happen next. It was a commentary on the media landscape: a fact made more brilliant by the show's inability to settle on a format. These were actors. These were real people. Everything felt like it should have subtext, except that it didn't. The only place it did was in Ryan Murphy's mind, where there was a gleeful antagonism in making the most unpredictable season the one most held under wraps week to week.
Along with the past few seasons, Roanoke was attempting to connect itself to the other five seasons. While it would take serious dedication to this uneven show to recognize them all, it was a fantastic achievement. It connected genres and characters in ways that were unnecessary, but added a nice flavor to the universe. It also serviced as a nice joke that the more that things tried to make sense, the less that they would. If nothing else, this is Murphy's perfect reinvention of the miniseries. It isn't just condensed to a few episodes. It is connected to everyone else's story. One could argue that shows like Fargo have been doing that too, but none have done it in as deceptively.
Roanoke is an acquired taste of a season that asks the viewer to stick around. It starts off slow, but eventually builds to something shocking and unexpected. It even has Doris Kearns Goodwin for some reason. It may not have the cohesion that makes for great TV, but it has the elements that make for great American Horror Story. It asks the audience to trust its impulses, as stupid as they may sometimes be. It ends up creating a demented vision of how audiences consume horror in the 21st century. It may not have the smarts of Murphy's American Crime Story, but it does have the boldness to be itself. It may be a less formed story than any season before, but does it matter if the results are entertaining? That is part of the point hidden behind the mystery of this season. It is also why it's one of their best in years.

OVERALL RATING: 4 out of 5

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