American Horror Story: TV Series? Miniseries? Something else?

18 Nov

I was a big fan of the first season of American Horror Story when it premiered, largely because I really liked Ryan Murphy’s earlier show, Nip/Tuck. I thought they did an awesome job combing the sort of alienating rapid-pace and snappy, hard-to-understand dialogue of the medical drama with the image-obsession of soap operas. It’s also set in Miami for the first few seasons.   Basically, it’s an awesome show. Furthermore, it’s defined by its excessive style and reliance on extreme situation, crazy characters, and, frankly, a thorough knowledge of the TV series format which it plays with in several noteworthy ways.

First, Nip/Tuck uses the cliffhanger to the point of absurdity. Secondly, they were able to get Vanessa Redgrave to play the mother of her actual daughter, Joley Richardson, and established this kind of mother/daughter rivalry within the series that was made more all the more enjoyable by the knowledge that these people were actual mother and daughter and that Mrs. Redgrave was an academy awarding winning actress while her daughter toiled in relative obscurity acting on a basic cable tv show. Third, after the writers’ strike forced the show to relocate the setting to Los Angeles, the show began to directly reference the TV industry. Dr. McNamara joins the crew of a medical drama as a technical consultant only to find himself staring in an on-screen role that has unintended consequences on their practice. Later, an entire episode is presented as a mock realty TV show called “Hearts and Scalpels” which strongly resembles “Dr. 90210”. 

The point of all of this is that clearly, Mr. Murphy has brought a very thorough understanding of the medium of television to each show he sets out to produce. But I wonder what this means for American Horror Story, which is noteworthy for its very unusual format and presentation. When Season 1 premiered, we had every reason to believe that this would be like any other TV series. Spoiler Alert! By the end of the first season, we discover that everyone on the show is dead and are all ghosts trapped in one house. This begged the question – with all the primary characters dead, where is the series going to go from here?

Mr. Murphy answered this question (sort of) with the premiere of the second season this fall. Instead of continuing the story, the second season of America Horror Story takes place in an entirely different time period, in a new location. Essentially, it’s a new show, except that the creative team and some select actors were carried over, albiet playing different parts. Before this season premiered, Mr. Murphy and others involved in the show spoke at length to the press about their decision to shake up the format of the show, and their explanations largely centered around the idea that their show was meant to represent the varied and unique genres of horror that exist in American culture (so where the first show concerned the multiple generations of unhappiness and terror in a Los Angeles house from the 1920s the second season focuses on an East Coast mental asylum, etc).

However, this explanation feels a bit half-hearted. After this announcement was made the first season was retroactively retitled to be “American Horror Story: Murder House”, a title that would probably have never been approved by FX in the first place. More generally, there is no indication in early episodes that these characters are going to be killed or that the series is moving towards an ultimate, final conclusion. 

So what now? The show has been officially re-christened as an “anthology series”. No one knows what this means. It’s not a miniseries, but rather a series of miniseries – that is, each season is a self-contained miniseries that preserves some of the cast and crew of previous seasons but is in no way obligated to continue any story lines or threads from previous episodes.

This sort of defies the categories we have been establishing over the course of this class for television programs. In another sense, though, there is an undeniable magic to this series, in my opinion. As the second season reaches its halfway point this week, I’m left to wonder what the future of this format is going to be. As the first “anthology series”, American Horror Story seems to be doing well (its already been renewed for a third season). As a television show, it defies categorization. Its viewership is significantly lower than we would expect for a network miniseries. But at the end of the day, this unique format is causally slipped in with other programming on FX and most people who watch the show don’t really care how the issues of continuity or formality are dealt with, and people on the “outside’ don’t seem to know anything special is going on with this show at all.

In a way, I think, this show really challenges the strength of the ideas of “television series” that we have been talking about this quarter. It may seem trivial to cite this show as a departure from the way TV functions, but given how strongly long-form scripted drama relies on the “final episode cliffhanger” idea to retain viewership, it is significant. Imagine if a season of Lost ended and you found out later that the next season was going to be set on a different island with an entirely different cast of characters. Would you tune in? I wouldn’t…

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