By Christian DiMartino
The first season of American Horror Story premiered 10 years ago this month. I could’ve reviewed it on its actual anniversary, October 5th, but since the 10th season was still airing, I figured I’d wait until the season came to a close. Which it now has. I’ll just say it: I love this show, and I haven’t missed an episode in its entire 10 year run. Mind you, not every season is a slam dunk, and in a lot of cases, I’ve seen each of the seasons only once. Yet the best seasons of American Horror Story are so good that it has kept me coming back for the last 10 years. The show, created and written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, features some pretty sharp writing, tremendous production values, and the acting is pretty much always fabulous (the spinoff, American Horror Stories… not to much). Not to mention, it’s entertaining as hell.
So I figured, as a fan from the beginning, I would briefly review every season. This is not a ranking- I’m not very good at that sort of thing nor do I like the pressure of making such decisions (movies are another story though). I will however review all 10 seasons, including American Horror Story: Double Feature, which just had its finale on Wednesday. They will be reviewed in chronological order, and they will be rated with a letter grade, as opposed to my preferred method of using stars. Stars are more of my thing, but I’d have to copy and paste it every time and it’ll just look wonky. Anyways, let’s get to it.
- Murder House: The one that started it all… and it’s honestly still one of the best. The season essentially followed a family (Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Taissa Farmiga) who moves into a beautiful Californian home that is a town tourist attraction, due to its history of… everyone who lives in it dies in it. This trio delivers strong work, but it’s no surprise that the season belongs to Jessica Lange, who slays here as their neighbor, Constance. This season also pretty much introduced the world to Evan Peters, so thank you for that. Murder House is excellent television- thrilling, well written, impeccably acted. It didn’t fully stick its landing, but everything leading up to it was so good that it didn’t really matter. A
- Asylum: This one follows a group of mental patients at a hospital called Briarcliff, headed by a deeply flawed nun (Lange). Peters returns here as a guy whose wife was supposedly abducted by aliens. James Cromwell plays a doctor who begins experimenting on the patients. Lily Rabe makes her first big AHS appearance as a sweet nun who becomes possessed by a spirit and goes power mad. Ryan Murphy muse Sarah Paulson also makes her first big appearance as a reporter who is locked up for being a lesbian, and conversion therapy is inflicted upon her. The verdict on Asylum goes one of two ways: you either go for it, or you don’t. I know some who jumped ship on the show just from the ludicrousness of this season. Well… I love it. Don’t get me wrong, Asylum features everything and the kitchen sink, from mental patients to demon possessions to Nazis to zombies to aliens, and I just love it for the way in which it tries just about everything, and in my eyes, it succeeds. The production design here is pretty lavish, and the performances are as top notch as you’d expect from the credentials. This could be my favorite season, just for how kooky it is, and I feel no shame. A
- Coven: The third season follows a group of Louisiana witches (Lange, Farmiga, Paulson, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidebe, and Rabe) as they fend off against certain dark forces. One of which is a former slave owner (Kathy Bates) who has a decades-old rivalry with a scorned witch (Angela Bassett). The witches also deal with the accidental killing of a teenager (Peters) by piecing his body back together. At the root of Coven though is the battle for who will be the Supreme witch, which certainly causes some dispute among them. One flaw with Coven is that Peters is essentially put to waste. With that said, Coven is pretty much the women’s world, and they more than reign supreme here. Coven works wonders, and it’s honestly mostly thanks to its style. There are horror elements here, but it isn’t exactly scary. What it is though is pure Ryan Murphy, and it’s just fabulous. Peters aside, there isn’t a performance here that misses a beat, with Lange, Paulson, Roberts, Rabe (channeling Stevie Nicks in the grooviest of ways), Bates, and Bassett adding so much dazzle to this that the flaws be damned. A-
- Freak Show: The title of this one pretty much says it all. It’s about a Floridian circus freak show in the 1940s, owned and operated by the deeply troubled Elsa Mars (Lange), who does a killer rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” (seriously, it’s iconic). Looming in the background is a psychotic spoiled brat named Dandy (Finn Wittrock) and a pretty terrifying serial killer named Twisty the Clown (John Carrol Lynch). It’s been years since I’ve last seen Freak Show so maybe a refresher would do me good, but I remember this being a lesser season. Peters returns as a guy with fins for hands and his character is pretty one-note and annoying; Lange, in her final complete season of the show, is great but she’s basically playing the same character as Coven. There is also a stretch or two that felt dragging. It is a decent season though, for the majority of the performances, its beautiful, impressive production values, it is entertaining… and it has a terrific villain in Wittrock’s Dandy. It’s also the first season to introduce the idea that the seasons are connected, so that was pretty cool. Maybe it’s better than I remember, but for now, it is good enough. B
- Hotel: Picture Murder House, but in a doomed hotel. Oh, but it also includes Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer has murderous vampire lovers, Wes Bentley as a detective in search of his missing son, and Dennis O’Hare and Kathy Bates shooting someone to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” I… really dig this one, too. Again, it’s been years since I last saw it, but Hotel really finds Murphy and Falchuck in the peak of their powers. The episodes here were nearly feature-length, and there were 13 of them. How often do you find that in television? I enjoy Hotel for the same reasons I like Murder House and Coven– it’s rich entertainment, with characters that you won’t forget any time soon, but to further that, the style of this thing is out of this world. It might’ve been a bit long, but it’s a very good time. A-
- Roanoke: Before Roanoke had its premiere, the creators made sure that absolutely nobody knew what this season was about, and honestly it was a brilliant marketing ploy. Roanoke begins by being one of those “Haunting of” shows you’d find on the Discovery Channel, with actors reenacting events while the “real people” (again, AHS regulars) reflected on the event. This was the basis for the first half of the season, and it was creepy, gripping, and effective. The latter half of the season followed everyone, from the actors to the real people, as they all got together to revisit the haunted house for a ratings boost. With this half, the season ran out of gas pretty quick. This is probably the only season that doesn’t get the full stamp of approval, and it’s a shame because there isn’t a fault in the acting and some of the ideas were good. After a while though it runs out of ideas and it just sort of spins its wheels until it lumbers toward a conclusion. It’s not garbage, but it doesn’t really work, either. C
- Cult: In probably the most audacious season, Cult begins on the night of the 2016 election, and it basically depicts the whirlwind and divide that it sent the country into. Paulson and Allison Pil play a lesbian couple, and soon Paulson begins to notice that all of her biggest phobias are coming for her. The root of the evil though this time is Evan Peters, snubbed of an Emmy nomination, as a radical Trump supporter. I’m not sure where everyone stands on this season- I get the vibe that, like with the election, it had quite the divide. I’m not a political person in the slightest, and personally, I think this is one of the best. It does take a minute to find its groove, but once it does, it’s really kind of great. Mind you, I could’ve done without Lena Dunham, but that’s just me. I like the way Cult dives into other cults and cult mentalities. I also like the way that, even though Trump supporters are the primary target, Cult pokes fun at both sides effectively well. I don’t know, I get the divide, but this one is hugely entertaining, satisfying, and for the cherry on top, features performances from Peters and Paulson acting their asses off with a capital A. A
- Apocalypse: This one begins with the world ending, and a group of people (Naomi Grossman, Evan Peters, and such) living in a bunker. Then the season does a 180 with the return of the Coven, and that’s all I’ll say. But… this is a beautifully satisfying season, particularly if you’ve been with this show as long as I have. I spoke with someone recently who pointed out flaws in it, and I’ve heard others say it’s crap. Maybe, but I see no crap. What I see is a season that pretty much sets out to deliver fan service, and boy did it deliver. If you still haven’t seen it, watch it for yourself and form your own opinion, but as an AHS devotee, this one is a delight. A-
- 1984: Not based on the novel or anything involving it, but rather, 1984 is an homage to slasher movies and all things 80s. This season is the first to not feature either of AHS‘ top dogs, Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson. We do however get Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, Naomi Grossman, and John Carrol Lynch. In terms of the plot, 1984 is fine- thoroughly interesting but seeing as it’s a complete homage, it doesn’t necessarily cover new ground. It is fun though, in the way it glorifies and pokes fun at the 80s. The whole thing is a decent ride, but what really wraps a bow on it is its ending, which, I don’t know if it’s because I was drunk or what, but it got a tear out of me. Yes, American Horror Story. This isn’t always a show that sticks the landing, but in the case of 1984, the ending made the whole thing worthwhile. B+
- Double Feature: The 10th, and newest, was advertised in a pretty vague way. Basically though, Double Feature is two different stories- neither connect, but they’re different. The first, Red Tide, follows a troubled writer (Wittrock) who moves his family to Cape Cod to do some screenwriting. It is here where a duo of weirdos (Peters and Frances Conroy) introduce him to a pill that will make him a tremendous writer… and a cannibal (if you’re not a true artistic soul though, you wind up being a zombie of the sorts). The second story, Death Valley, tells two different stories from two different timelines: one involves Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (Neal McDonough and Paulson) and their involvement with Area 51, and the other, set in present day, involves a group of college kids who all find themselves mysteriously pregnant… even the men. Red Tide is damn good, if we’re being honest, in that it tells an original, compelling story that holds you in its grip from beginning to end and serves up some pretty great villains (Macaulay Culkin is also in it, and honestly pretty good). Unlike 1984 though, Red Tide doesn’t end as well as it could. The same could be said for Death Valley, which barely has an ending at all. In terms of the rest of it, I enjoyed the black and white sequences with the Eisenhowers- they’re beautifully filmed and you can tell that the makers had fun with it. The present day sequences a little less. Sure, there’s intrigue, but these characters aren’t my cup of tea. With that said, there is fun in both storylines, in the way that Falchuck and Murphy toy around with the idea of conspiracy theories. Again though, Death Valley ends with a thud. Double Feature, as a season, is uneven and might be a wheeze (check out the IMDb ratings, woof!), but there’s enough good in it to keep me around for another few years. B