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The beauty of retrospect and the future of American Horror Story

[This post contains spoilers for the entire first season, so beware.]

For those of you who don't already know, Ryan Murphy and FX president John Landgraf yesterday revealed their plans for season two of American Horror Story, which involve an entirely different story, an entirely different cast and new representations of the word 'horror'. It's a ballsy move, sacrificing season one titans like Jessica Lange, Connie Britton and Frances Conroy in favor of fresh incarnations of nutty carnage. But it's also a development that speaks volumes about the ambition of the series as well as cable TV's willingness to break new ground.

Season one left a ton of unanswered questions, but it also had something of a resolution to it. The Harmon family finally found common ground in the afterlife and took reign of Murder House, Violet ended things with bug-eyed sociopath Tate, Moira became truly part of something she loved, and Constance got the baby that she'd always wanted. Sure, he enjoyed some light homicide every once in a while, but what kid is perfect? There were still lingering plot threads, but I liked that life (in this case, afterlife) goes on.

I initially had some issues with the finale and the lack of apocalyptic insanity that I had been anticipating, but this new development changes up my opinion in a major way. "Afterbirth" wasn't just the end of the first season, but the end of that particular chapter of the Murder House story. Unlike this past summer's AMC remake of The Killing, an audience-wide coronary in TV form, American Horror Story never promised a book ended narrative, and just like the never-ending havoc of the thirty-plus years that the season previously documented, evil will always be in that house and characters will always try their best to extinguish it. In the case of the Harmon's, they're making the best of a bad situation. They banished some of the house's more overtly evil spirits (by telling them to, you know, "go away"), and could likely befriend some of the more relaxed ghosts in the house, like Constance's vacuous boy-toy Travis or the baby-hungry gay dudes.

Taking all of that into account, the ending was something of a quiet victory. What it lacked in demons and hellfire, it made up for with family-driven drama and the emotionally-charged reconnecting of a group of people that at one point couldn't stand each other. And do we need to see Constance raise her little hell-spawn? Isn't a toothy open ending just as gleefully satisfying?

When I read yesterday's news about the rapid change in direction for the show, it reminded me of that almighty NBC flop Heroes from a couple of years back. That was a show that had a killer central premise with a season-long mystery that unfolded at a steady pace, entertaining us each week as we saw a bunch of random people slowly converge and interact, eventually becoming an elaborate super-powered dream team. There were even rumors at the time that the show would abandon the cast at the end of the year, allowing a different group of superheroes to take over in season two. But, unfortunately, season one had been a huge hit, while several actors (nerd god Masi Oka, teen pin-up Hayden Panettiere... both now entirely absent from pop culture) had gained significant fanbases. So why on earth would NBC sacrifice the entire cast of its one great ratings hit? Instead, we got three additional seasons with tired characters slowly circling the drain, bored actors phoning in their performances from a beach in Cabo, and horrible trips to feudal Japan. Gah. Bad memories.

Thankfully, American Horror Story is on FX, a station which has always prided itself on its boundary-pushing television. Series like Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and The Shield were repeatedly throwing viewers off and sending its characters down polarizing avenues, and American Horror Story, regardless of how big a hit it has become, is following that same direction. It's something I'm enormously excited about, especially in light of a finale that I felt at the time only promised repetitive blah-ness for next year. And remember, this is called "American Horror Story", one of the vaguest titles around. Like Ryan Murphy states: “There are all kinds of different American horror stories to tell. There are serial killing stories, prison stories, true crime stories... each year of the show is designed to be a little miniseries unto itself. My excitement for this show's future decreased a little after the finale, but this news creates nothing but anticipation for what could be another stunningly original season.

To read more about the changes, check out Deadline. Murphy did say it's possible that some of the first season's cast could reappear at some point down the line, allaying fears that we'll never see Lange's cradle-robbing drag act ever again. Also of note, Murphy promises "the only thing we’re not open to doing is a season on vampires.” Well, thank God for that. This is a show that should be breaking new ground, not following old trends.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.


  1. Thanks for the rundown, Max. This new development was a real surprise. It's certainly an interesting way to go, and it just might work. You're absolutely right that going this way might have made Heroes much better.

    Just wanted to add -- after several guest star spots, Masi Oka recently joined the cast of Hawaii Five-O, one of my guilty pleasures, and is playing a marvelously geeky forensics guy. And I wasn't sure you knew, but Justified is also on FX. I never thought I'd write reviews of a crime drama, but here I am doing it. FX is definitely doing something right.

  2. Ryan Murphy also mentions in another interview (maybe with EW?) that some of the first season actors might pop up as new characters.

    Given that's he such a huge DARK SHADOWS fan, I can see that happening. Actors on the original DS routinely played (some up to half a dozen or more) different characters – in different timelines, but also in the present timeline – on the show.

    I think we need to see Constance at least once next season, if only to see Jessica Lange – who I never cared for prior to this show – tear it up.

  3. My guess is next season will take place in an institutional setting of some kind - a prison, hospital, resort, or something similar. It won't be another house.


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