‘American Horror Story’ Has Become Its Own Worst Enemy

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Tonight, the fourth season of American Horror Story, subtitled Freak Show, will come to an end. It will probably be a sexy, gruesome, jaw-dropping end, and, like the show’s third season (Coven) finale, it will surely attempt to shock its millions of viewers into forgetting just how awful the preceding season was. Because, for all of the franchise’s season-to-season and week-to-week inconsistencies, American Horror Story always ends well and with a high body count. Perhaps its the series’ ability to stick its landing that has blinded co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk to the fact that the very things that allowed for the show’s terrific first season — the freedom of the anthology format, access to high-caliber talent, and near-complete creative control — are the very same things that have led to the show’s astoundingly fast descent into the pits.

In 2011, when FX announced that it had signed Nip/Tuck and Glee creator Ryan Murphy to produce an anthology horror series, folks were skeptical. The idea was good — a legitimately scary show, with a rotating cast and setting — but Murphy was a hard sell. His shows, while popular, were plagued with inconsistencies and tended to favor style over substance.

The first season’s casting assuaged a lot of those fears. Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and, perhaps most exciting of all, Jessica Lange were attached. That season, which has been posthumously subtitled Murder House, was met largely with rapturous applause. In 2011, it felt fresh. Lange was amazing in it. The story was OK. Zachary Quinto showed up. Evan Peters played a Kurt Cobain proxy who shot up a high school. A lot of people died. Season over. Lange won a Golden Globe. The show was a hit.

When the time came to make Season 2’s Asylum, the producers went all out. They released more than a dozen teasers in advance of the premiere. And when Asylum did premiere, viewers — all 3.5 million of them — were greeted with an amped-up stylistic approach and cinematic flourishes that would be impressive for a contemporary horror film. And the story? The writers shoved everything they could fit into the Briarcliff Asylum setting: murderous, possessed nuns; sadistic Nazi surgeons; a killer Santa Claus (played beautifully by Ian McShane); a half-baked plot involving aliens and abduction; Adam Levine and Chloë Sevigny, briefly; and a brilliant musical number by Lange.

Asylum was divisive because of its stew-like plotting, but it is the series’ highlight. Murder House succeeded because it told the story of a singular place. Asylum succeeded because it had one setting to anchor it, but it also had single-episode satellite plots. And while those plots didn’t necessarily advance the lives of our main characters (Lange, again in the role of a once-great and beautiful woman who was at turns both nasty and compassionate, and Sarah Paulson, playing a journalist investigating the death of her wife at the hands of Briarcliff), they didn’t detract from them, and they gave Briarcliff some flavor.

It would seem only fair to discuss Season 3’s Coven in detail, but, more than even Freak Show, it was a mess. It was set at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, a kind of majestic Hogwarts for descendants of the Witches of Salem. Like all seasons of the show, the idea was good. The execution? Merely the same: Lange as the queen bitch of the witches who is fighting to stay relevant; Paulson as an underdog trying to do good; Evan Peters as a goodhearted dead person; Emma Roberts as top mean girl; Jamie Brewer as the lovable, threatening outcast; Dennis O’Hare as a boring weirdo; Frances Conroy as some wonderfully eccentric, largely unimportant minor character. Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Gabourey Sidibe, Patti Lupone, and Danny Huston joined the cast. Oh, and toward the end of the season Stevie Nicks showed up as a witch, which must have helped people forget just how boring the episodes had been up to that point. Because, a year later, Freak Show premiered to an FX record-shattering 6.17 million viewers.

To the credit of all of us who watched it, Freak Show looked promising. The lead-up marketing campaign was brilliant, and stylistically intriguing. And the cast was just as great, but bigger: Lange, Roberts, Bassett, Peters, Conroy, Bates, O’Hare, Sidibe, Paulson, and Brewer all returned. Michael Chiklis, Finn Witrock, Matt Bomer, Neil Patrick Harris, Grace Gummer, Patti LaBelle, and a whole slew of other minor players joined the cast. That seems like an absurdly long list of names to have to mention here, and it is. But it’s also an absurdly long list of actors to cram into 13 episodes of television.

It didn’t take long for Freak Show to fall into the same traps as Coven. Sure, stylistically it was amazing, and, before he was killed off, Twisty the Clown — arguably the series’ scariest character — was a zeitgeist moment. But Lange’s character, Fräulein Elsa, was the same egomaniacal has-been Lange has played for four years now. Her Cabinet of Curiosities — the titular freak show — was full of color, but, after a few weeks, it also became evident that it was full of unlikable stock characters. And if Coven’s witches-vs.-voodoo shtick was heavy-handedly racist, then, by god, Freak Show’s message of civil rights was, for the few episodes the writers remembered it, so blatant that the characters themselves actually spoke of it.

Beyond that, Freak Show exacerbated American Horror Story‘s tendency to stop developing any given character after establishing one defining trait. (Lange: vindictive; Paulson: doe-eyed — with two heads!; Peters: the golden boy; Chiklis: the wounded, closeted tough guy; etc.). Then there’s the overreliance on Lange’s musical performances as early ratings draws, and the inexplicable disappearance of these performances halfway through the season.

It’s as if the writers (and, admittedly, the viewers) thought that we all only wanted the big stuff. But it turns out that, without strong central characters, a bunch of deaths becomes nothing more than a bunch of deaths. And so we get a string of gorier and gorier set pieces with little to anchor them. We have two-episode arcs devoted to minor characters (Wes Bentley as an evil Halloween ghost, Neil Patrick Harris as an insane puppeteer). How are we supposed to care about anyone when the focus changes every week, and the characters change every year? The writers have copied the structure of an ensemble show like Orange Is the New Black, but they’ve forgotten that they don’t have the benefit of past seasons to ground the show when each week brings forth a new, ultimately expendable character. And then comes the end, when everyone dies and we all have a terrible ever after.

So what should the show do? The easy answer is to pare down the cast. Find a setting that anchors the show beyond a gimmick. Write characters that serve as more than shock value. For fuck’s sake, give the talented leading women something interesting to do. And, no, that doesn’t mean giving them two heads.