American Horror Story: Roanoke ~ Season Review

Everything about American Horror Story: Roanoke is off-kilter. From the super secretive theme that was not revealed until the first episode to the excessive amount of teasers trailers to a narrative structure that is both familiar and odd. At only 10 episodes, the shortened season also seems like a challenge for the writers who typically shove many (hundreds?) of plot lines into one season. Then there is an unshakeable feeling that this has been an elaborate experiment.

The first five episodes prove that AHS can be scary, linear, and give actors meaty opportunities to stretch themselves in very dark ways. As a show-within-a-show, "My Roanoke Nightmare" is told in the dramatic reenactment/survivor-interview style of shows like Paranormal Witness and A Haunting. We know instantly that whatever horrors lie ahead, these people will survive. It lowers the stakes but also shifts the focus onto the story, characters, and ambience of the creepiest house since Amityville. The house itself is a character with round eye porthole windows, large lung-shaped picture window in the center, and a spiral staircase like a throat. The very ground pulses like a breathing animal.

But this also inadvertently highlights one of AHS ongoing problems: none of the characters are likable and viewers end up cheering for The Butcher and the menagerie of beasties to cut these whining people to shreds. Effective horror writing requires that viewers identify with or remotely feel empathy/sympathy for the protagonist. Sadly no one here, even the young girl, are worth remembering much less saving. Nonetheless, the nods to genre pastiche are effective and the show is incredibly entertaining. Then the first big twist arrives as the show-within-a-show comes to an end and AHS switches gears.

Episodes 6-9 become a found-footage-style behind-the-scenes making of a second season of the show, and while it's an interesting concept, the execution is fumbled. We are immediately told that only one survived the second ordeal at Roanoke, again lowering the stakes and making it a distracting guessing game. The survivors return to the house with the flimsiest of motivations (I want to reconnect with my estranged husband–in hell!) and as usual, the "real" actors are portrayed as self-centered idiots. It all too quickly becomes a repetitive slaughter and the found footage angle quickly becomes an incredulous crutch (let me hold this camera steady on my face while you're hacking away at me). Why is found footage still a thing?!

After no real surprises and some seriously grisly deaths, Episode 10 caps off the season with Lana Winters (from Season 2: Asylum) interviewing the sole survivor. This fulfills producer Ryan Murphy's promise that all the seasons are loosely connected because–oh who cares. Anyhoo, the episode literally races to the finish line with so much sphincter-cramming nonsense (there's the AHS we know) and yet ends with a resounding whimper. WHAT. THE. HELL. Again, ideas swirl in my head like why didn't they keep the behind the scenes approach (sans found footage) and really delve into the haunting, why this land, what happened to the colony, the real butcher whose appearance was all too brief and unnerving, and show how fact and fiction really differ. For a season to start with such a strong conceit and squander it was disheartening.

It should also be noted that this season is quite a judgy commentary on horror. Is Season 6 mocking the very fans who love horror and this series? Referring to Episode 10's flashback scene at PaleyFest (a real annual TV festival hosted in LA) the rambunctious audience laughs mindlessly and cheers on the "My Roanoke Nightmare" cast who delivers canned, cheesy quips to their vacuous delight. I guess horror fans are all indiscriminate, dumb consumers of entertainment.

I'm not certain yet how this season will stack up to the other seasons – time is needed to percolate – but like others it is neither a complete failure nor resounding success. Episodes 1-5 get a "A-" while episodes 6-9 get a "C", and episode 10 gets a "D". Averaging to: