‘American Horror Stories’: why self-contained episodes is Ryan Murphy’s best idea in ages

Has the long-running anthology series finally found its natural format?

This week brought news that season 10 of American Horror Story has been delayed until 2021, due to the pandemic. With omnipresent creator Ryan Murphy teasing a beach-related theme for the latest instalment on Instagram (and filming for the series was originally due to begin earlier than usual because it’s “weather dependent”), perhaps the only thing scarier right now than AHS at the seaside is…. actually going to the seaside. Even Where’s Wally? would be looking at images of the throngs at beauty spots and tutting: “Nah, that’s too crowded for me!”, while the great white from Jaws wouldn’t head there without being in full PPE.

On the plus side, the FX announcement was accompanied by the confirmation that American Horror Stories, a weekly analogy series that will feature a different story each week, has been green-lit, which has the potential to be the best thing to happen to the series in ages. Ever since its debut Murder House in 2011, AHS has arguably never had a consistently great season. Usually it starts off with an assured, promising pilot – which perfectly sets up the premise, tone and collection of intriguing characters – before they start taking a George’s Marvellous Medicine approach to the plot, throwing any disparate OTT idea they can find into the mix (Aliens! Anne Frank! Killer Santa!), until it completely veers off the rails, and everything becomes as incoherent, implausible and logic-defying as asking Dominic Cummings: “Go anywhere nice this weekend?” Invariably, it fails to stick the landing.

American Horror Story
‘American Horror Story’ season 10 is set to star Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and Billie Lourd among others. Credit: FX

American Horror Story’s greatest assets – its dizzying surfeit of ideas, lack of restraint which makes it great fun – often becomes its Achilles’ Heel. Storylines are built up then abandoned altogether for something else, as it becomes distracted by the next shiny thing as if it’s been written by Finding Nemo’s Dory. Worse, last year’s AHS: 1984 (which, along with the President Trump’s election-influenced, politically naïve Cult represented the show’s nadir) struggled to stretch a threadbare plot – a love letter to 1980s summer camp-set slasher films like Friday the 13th – over nine episodes, leaving it spinning in more circles than Captain Moore trying to raise money for the NHS. Following that season with a beach theme is practically inviting the critics to quip: “Jumped the shark.”

Once the novelty of seeing what new world they’ve devised and watching their established repertory of top-grade actors (including Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and Kathy Bates) taking on a new character, often wildly different from the previous season, you’re left with trying to make sense of what’s happening as the next twist comes along. With single self-contained stories, it would rein in the show’s worst excesses and force them to hone down their ideas into digestible chunks that deliver satisfying payoffs.

American Horror Story
Emma Roberts in ‘American Horror Story: 1984’. Credit: FX

Even better, single stories  would allow everybody in the sprawling cast the chance to shine. AHS boasts a stellar array of talent – Denis O’Hare, Emma Roberts, Angela Bassett, Finn Wittrock and Frances Conroy to name just a few – but with such a large number of actors to service, they can’t all be afforded the same screen time each season (especially when some of the main actors regularly play multiple characters each season – in Apocalypse, Paulson portrayed everything bar the title sequence), leaving some criminally underused. When they’re in a lesser role, it can feel as weirdly pointless and as much a waste of their talents as watching Picasso pop round to give your bathroom wall a Dulux Mineral Mist undercoat, or seeing Superman fly EasyJet. It can also be difficult to believe in each character. You’re not suspending belief to be convinced: “That’s Scáthach, a bloodthirsty witch!” in Roanoke, because you’re too busy thinking: “It’s Lady Gaga – I wonder if they’ll give her a musical number.”

Another bonus of the spin-off: American Horror Story’s imperious grand dame Jessica Lange has ruled out returning for a full series. She bid auf wiedersehen after playing a German amputee master of ceremonies who lost her legs in a snuff film and sang David Bowie and Lana Del Rey (seriously, AHS makes Tiger King look understated) in 2015’s Freak Show, then reprised her Murder House OG character Constance Langdon in 2018’s AHS: Apocalypse (or AHS: Tuesday as it’s probably now known in these COVID-19 times) for a guest appearance. But surely there’s a chance of tempting her to return for American Horror Stories, where she doesn’t have to commit to the long haul? In, out, prepare the Emmy Awards winner’s speech.

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Lady Gaga as The Countess in ‘American Hotel Story: Hotel’. Credit: FX

The irony, of course, about American Horror Stories is that it arrives when interest in self-contained anthology shows is starting to pall. Apple TV+’s  reboot of Amazing Stories and Jordan Peele’s remake of The Twilight Zone were both critically eviscerated, while even the last batch of Black Mirror – which kicked off the trend for updating the format – felt like it was retreading old ground. Only Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No. 9 has managed to remain consistently fresh and reliably brilliant, with an ability to astonish that means you can tune in feeling like you’re in safe hands, rather than simply consulting a ‘Best episodes – ranked!’ list to ensure to avoid a dud.

What always ruins each trend of anthology shows is the cost (changing the set and cast each episode) and also how, with no narrative arc, there’s nothing to hook you for the next episode: it’s the quick one night stand shag of TV rather than a relationship you invest in. It’s a genre that lives or dies by the ideas – and as American Horror Story frequently strains to contain too many of them – perhaps it’s finally found its natural format.

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