American Horror Story peaked back in the days of Asylum and Freak Show. The series followed the common artistic trajectory born of genuine inspiration: the first installment is promising, but has an amateurish touch. The second installment sheds that amateurish touch from the experience gained, and that’s the second phase of creation. The third installment is the best and where the story peaks the most, meaning all seasons before Hotel were the show’s glory days.
By the time Red Tide and Death Valley hit, the show had already flopped. It started with Hotel, one significant factor being the departure of a major cast member, whose creative potential still hadn’t been entirely exploited. The momentum of previous seasons was broken, and subsequent installments couldn’t compare. That’s around when I quit watching AHS.
It also took a toll on storytelling. By Hotel, since the show had peaked before this, it got a certain amount of wiggle room to take whatever direction it wanted. That free reins is exactly what caused the connective thread to unravel.
From season 4 onward, we see some significant changes in themes, atmosphere, and in execution.
Original seasons had that dark, mysterious atmosphere, mixing in the typically American feeling of being lost in the middle of nowhere with no signs of civilisations for miles on end, that only the good old US of A, due to its massive land mass, can ever replicate. The horror aspects weaved a profound quality and moral signature into the story: the show didn’t fear delving into darker aspects of life, which always yielded great moral subject matter. It was also delivered with an extreme subtlety, especially in the paranormal elements, which created a sense of two different worlds, existing and occasionally brushing against each other, but never entirely, completely touching, or merging.
The show also played with the concepts of different generations. While other countries may not care much about this classification, it plays a major role, albeit one that inaccurately twists perception, in how different demographics are perceived.
Earlier seasons showed us the emotional world of “Gen Z” teenagers, mixed with the echo of being raised among “baby boomers”, and showed that great generational clash, which made the show’s emotional landscape and stakes super rich. It evoked the existential angst of 90’s born teenagers, without the complete shallowness and superficiality we attribute to subsequent generations, that swept over the country like a cancer (yes, we’ll get into that with Red Tide), because it maintained a good bridge between those teenagers, who were the focus, and everybody else.
So it still gave a sentiment of turning towards a new époque, while focusing on that internal turmoil. Every character was humanised and sympathised with, which made for a particularly diverse story.
All in all, a interesting balance of great elements, and a strong alternative to the usual crappy brand of Hollywood horror movies.
The Time of Double Feature
But the moment that the show peaks, it all goes down.
The horror aspect, that delicately verged on the inexplicably paranormal and touched on the mystery of those vast and unexplored American landscapes I talked about above, have become a parody of itself. Original seasons were horror done well. Current seasons are horror done Hollywood style. The show fell into the stereotypes it had so successfully avoided.
A lot of the subtle horror has been replaced by grotesqueness, in-your-face gruesome content that no longer plays on the psyche and on human fear. The story goes down every single possible cliches for shock value, and with little emotional depth, or reasoning for it. We see a smattering of every different horrific thing you can think of, all smashed together, and each season is about a new type of shocking content. It’s a question of being able to stomach it, by now. I’m thinking for instance of the recurring theme of snuff films, which was handled as artfully as possible back in Freak Show, and used as non-credible shock value in subsequent seasons, like in Red Tide. Or like sexual abuse, which was handled with some credibility in Coven, and yet only thrown in for unexplained shock value in Hotel.
That transition didn’t make the show a mockery or a commentary of cheap, for shock-value horror, but led to it becoming that kind of cheap shock-value horror.
The generation explored now is the mainstream world of “plastic culture” that millennials were raised on. The Starbucks going, slurred speech, dumb victims of capitalism who think America is the greatest country on Earth, in all its stereotypical glory. This subject matter doesn’t make for content as provoking as it used to, which is when the series became a parody of what it was trying to avoid.
Right off the bat, I can’t say I feel enthralled by the show’s newest regulars, such as Ursula Caan’s Leslie Grossman or Billie Lourd’s recurring roles across latest seasons. The changes to the cast don’t feel organic, but rather forced, and the newcomers aren’t particularly all that compelling compared to past cast members. There’s little depth left to the acting, but at the same time, there’s little depth left to the writing, so not much for the cast to go on with.
They fit the show like a glove, but in the sense that AHS has acquired a strong mainstream atmosphere, and newcomers have that “post-millennial” vibe. The quintessence of the shallow Hollywood life cliché. It’s to the point that compelling acting from original cast members feels off, like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, because they no longer fit the show’s new mood.
The story has fallen too much into a sort of white people twitter. Every other season seems to take a collection of white Americans, put them into a horror setting, then ruthlessly mock that infamous Hollywood stereotype. The ending of Red Tide springs to mind, where Ursula, a Hollywood agent, brings the talent pills to Hollywood, and the whole place falls into a zombie apocalypse. We also have the season’s pilot living to the stereotype, and setting the tone for the rest of the season, with the child, Harry and Doris’ daughter, being the only one to notice the signs that something is wrong, while her parents are gleefully oblivious and thinking only of the good things they hope the new location will bring—a trope that opens up many bad Hollywood horror movies and series.
In earlier seasons, such as in Haunted House, the “white people being dense and ignoring their instincts” trope felt more of an accident, which is ironic considering the story literally involves a white couple purchasing a haunted house. But when comparing the two introductions, of Violet’s parents purchasing their new, unbeknown to them, haunted home, vs Doris and Harry heading for their holiday home destination, the genuine cluelessness feels accidental in one, while it feels purposeful in the other, like the show is acting stupid for the sake of it.
All in all, the show isn’t what it used to be, and leaves much to be desired.
Death Valley was a little more fun, in that we’ve never, so far, seen a piece of media talk about conspiracy theories and take them so literally. Unless the movie 2012 counts?
It was both annoying and amusing to see the quintessential alien, in all its ridiculous alien glory, as we’ve gruesomely imagined it since the 60’s being taken so literally. Death Valley is a collection of conspiracy theories regarding the much debated and speculated about Area 51, a real location that spawned so many of theories, it’s become almost mythical. This part of Double Feature recounts the most absurd rendition of these theories, all smacked together with a good dose of that plastic millennial mentality thrown on top.
The acting is worse than in Red Tide, even despite the regulars and the addition of Neal McDonough as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, mainly because a good chunk of the main cast is a quartet of seemingly untalented teenagers, who, even if they had talent, wouldn’t have been pushed too far because the story demanded so little of them anyway. Since the characters didn’t evoke that many emotions when they were there, and because we also didn’t get to know them well enough to feel gutted about their story’s deadly conclusion, their brutal death felt completely pointless and uneventful. Another case of overused death in fiction.
Since Death Valley is all about aliens, want to read more about the portrayal of aliens in the media? Check out our analysis “Let’s Create Better Aliens“.
I realise that my opinion may, overall, appear hypocritical. I understand the derivative and mocking sense of humour of Death Valley but not of Red Tide? But unfortunately, my thoughts on the overall quality of the show remains, and I still believe it has plummeted since its early days.
The series’ conclusion was underwhelming. Red Tide‘s ending was too open-ended—presumably, Hollywood is overrun by zombies, and soon, the world? And jumps into alien territory too soon—and then humanity is wiped out when aliens take over? There is no connective thread between Red Tide and Death Valley, which leads me to wonder, why are they featured in the same season, and not split into two separate ones? As a wink to the rest of the anthology, I feel that Death Valley should have somewhat led to Apocalypse—since we were in conspiracy theories territory anyway.
To quickly tie back to Red Tide, watching the group of teenagers all die one after the other brings back to mind the death of main characters Belle Noir, Harry, and whomever that character played by Evans Peter was, and how mildly gutting the deaths were. Being the season’s main characters, you’d expect a less unceremonious wrap-up of their story-line, but of course, that may have been a bit too much to expect for the show to honor what a character’s death traditionally represents.
The death toll is expeditious, needlessly brutally grotesque, and pointless.
Theta’s line “My humanity is my greatest shame” is puzzling to me. If your humanity is your greatest shame and you despise the human race, then why merge with humans? Are all hybrids going to grow up feeling this way? Or will this contradiction get sorted out later on and be normalized, because you can’t just go about your life carrying this kind of cosmic shame as your race’s genesis. Wouldn’t it have also been faster for the aliens to try and adapt to earth’s environment as themselves, rather than to just, mix with humans, especially if they’re supposedly superior to them?
I know it’s a common trope for humanity’s projected sense of superiority to show up in portrayals of aliens, and that logic probably doesn’t make too much sense in a plot driven by conspiracy theories, but still, I have so many questions because of these inconsistencies.
In the end, AHS is not what it used to be. It lost the charm that garnered its original, massive viewership. The show has become a roller-coaster of ridiculous and absurd stuff. It lost its subtle horror roots, to turn into a Hollywood cliche, too much to be a genuine and original addition to small screen entertainment the way it used to.
Ultimately, it doesn’t feel worth watching it seriously anymore. Over junk food while trying to escape your life? Probably. The rest of the time? No.
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