Updated: 20th April 2018

American Horror Story season six review a scarily shaky start

This seasons concept was kept secret and so far, a meta true crime thriller based on a 16th-century disappearance seems more dicey than demonic

The first season of American Horror Story no one knew what we were getting ourselves into and it was glorious. There were all sorts of twisty plots coming and going, the past seemed to be as relevant as the present, and cast members were regularly killed off, something that would never be done on a show intended to last many seasons. But once we learned it was an anthology that would reset every year, some of the magic wore off.

After a few lackluster seasons, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk decided to get back to basics. Instead of releasing the theme of the sixth season (like Asylum, Coven, Freak Show or Hotel) they decided to leave it blank because there is nothing as scary as not knowing what is going to happen. No copies were released to the press before the premiere and even the cast list was kept as hush-hush as Donald Trumps tax returns.

While its an exciting premise, it didnt exactly pay off in the premiere episode, which indicated that Murphy and co have settled on a show-within-a-show concept. Wednesdays installment was presented as an episode of a show called My Roanoke Nightmare, after the 16th-century colony off the coast of what is now North Carolina where all the members of the village disappeared without a trace. However, while there were some villagers with pitchforks and torches, this wasnt a story about colonialists. In the manner of the true crime shows that litter Investigation Discovery, were hearing a couple tell their story but watching dramatic re-enactments of the events they describe.

Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt (Andr Holland) are an interracial couple who leave LA for Matts native North Carolina. There they buy a gorgeous old farmhouse that makes the Bates Motel look like a quaint seaside cottage. They dont question why its being sold at auction for about $20,000 or why the only other interested buyers are a trio of hillbillies. (Though of course we all know the answer.) Thats when the hauntings start.

In the past, Shelby (Sarah Paulson) sees that the sky is raining teeth and is attacked by a mysterious figures carrying torches and pitchforks while she bathes in the hot tub. Matt (Cuba Gooding Jr) is worried about her and when he leaves on business he enlists his sister Lee (Adina Porter and Angela Bassett in the past) to come and spend time with her. The two of them are once again beset by mysterious forces that they cant explain including little stick men hanging in the house, seemingly imported from The Blair Witch Project

This framing device is clever but it also has its drawbacks. Just like the true crime shows it is based on, there is more emphasis on suspense than showing us the cause of the terror. Unfortunately, American Horror Story has also managed to import the genres drawbacks too a slack pace, overly larded with extraneous details. The one bonus is that Goodings limited acting ability makes him look like hes doing a spot-on impersonation of one of those dramatic re-enactment actors giving an outlandishly bad performance.

One of the great things about AHS was the way it took horror movie conventions whether witches, vampires or aliens and subversively played around with them. Making AHS into a carbon copy of a lesser genre of program doesnt allow it to challenge that formula in the same way. Its just another crappy true crime story, but with a few Oscar nominees and a much larger budget.

The episode ends mid-scene, leading viewers to believe that the next episode will be another installment of My Roanoke Nightmare. That doesnt seem promising given that we watch American Horror Story to be surprised and thrilled by the weird directions in which Murphy leads us. (Remember the weekly anachronistic pop songs from Freak Show that he seemed to forget about after episode four?) But since we know nothing about where the show is going its hard to say what to expect. After so many years of lackluster showings and slapdash storytelling, not knowing what to expect is terrifying but in a bad way.

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