Anthologies, ‘American Horror Story’, and the Disposability of Pulp Storytelling

This show embraced its reputation for the weird and the strange, but it's storytelling methods are among the messiest in television.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story made its debut during the midst of the post-Twilight craze of serialized-supernatural dramas (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc.). The program was a startling in its change of tone to those who followed Murphy, fresh off the success of Glee at the time. The series was conceived as a highly-serialized anthology that would essentially reset its setting, cast, and focus each season.

The first season concerned itself with a family that moves to Los Angeles to escape the looming specters of their past only to find themselves (literally) haunted by the house’s own ghosts. It was a debut that not only proved the series’ chops when it came to horror, but also showcased its desire to experiment in pursuit of exploring themes like doomed-love, adultery and psychogeography.

Since this initial outing (retroactively titled Murder House), American Horror Story has taken audiences to an asylum for the criminally insane, a secretive New Orleans-based coven of witches, and a travelling freak show. The variety here is impressive, and the series has made great use of its anthology format to play with the audiences expectations. Actors who debut portraying villains in earlier seasons are frequently and deliberately recast as heroes in later ones. The series also shifts its tone and approach to horror with every passing season. It’s always throwing fascinating possibilities not just at the audiences but also the people involved with the show.

A big part of this variety is due to the versatility that the anthology format lends to the show. Although the anthology has a rich history with television audiences, it’s one that has undeniably fallen out of favor since the late ’50s, early ’60s days of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. By definition, anthologies concern themselves with the collection of stories; American Horror Story conforms to the tradition in this regard.

Each season deals with a set of stories within a more or less closed setting. Murder House explores the lives of those involved with the titular place of residence, Asylum dives into the struggles of those working or imprisoned at Briarcliffe and Coven tackles the stories of the descendants of Salem. Earlier seasons of American Horror Story actually went so far as to structure around these smaller stories within each anthology; the opening acts of both Murder House and Asylum took time to establish a televised storytelling formula familiar to viewers before going off the rails in the latter half of each season.

Relative newcomers to the anthology game like True Detective and Fargo are looking to take a similar approach, though the former is much more concerned with one sprawling story and the tight-cast involved. However, it’s hard to imagine that either will achieve the diversity that Murphy and Falchuk’s effort has achieved.

There are, of course, some downsides to the format, as fans of American Horror Story are steadily discovering. In spite of the series’ ability to literally reinvent itself, later seasons of American Horror Story are starting to fall victim to the same shortcomings. After the critical slam-dunk that was Asylum, the writers behind the show have been almost consumed by their attempts to “out-weird” its predecessors, often at the cost of the coherent and satisfying central narratives that made all the weird parts of Asylum work together so well. By seemingly attributing the series’ early success to its pulp weirdness, Murphy and Falchuk are boxing themselves into a specific style of narrative, something that works to the series’ detriment.

American Horror Story’s unadulterated and shameless love for pulpy horror tropes (no matter how camp) is something that sets it apart from a lot of other horror series; this has characterized how a lot of fans feel about the series for some time now. For these fans, part of the series’ charm lies in seeing the writers behind the show arrange every conceivable trope and cliché the horror genre has to offer up in the most entertaining ways. Asylum alone includes mad Nazi scientists, aliens, demonic possessions, and psychopathic serial killers.

Anything can happen, but it’s hard to get invested in everything that does happen. Where earlier seasons built up to this madness, Coven and Freak Show threw too much at audiences, too quickly. By the end, it doesn’t matter how unique Murphy and Falchuk’s take on the material is; they lose a lot of their impact. There’s a sense of reckless fun here, but it comes hand-in-hand with the disposability attached to this style of pulpy storytelling.

The other big shortcoming the series faces comes in a more philosophical form. American Horror Story deals with the most extreme of human emotions, and the heightened reality in which the show takes place has the potential to make it a powerful political or philosophical soapbox. Sadly, the show seems content to just evoke these issues in pursuit of dramatic or emotional impact rather than try to make any sort of statement of some kind, something that’s disappointed many of the show’s fans who were impressed with a lot of its approaches to themes like adultery and sanity.

As American Horror Story has gone forward, it’s embraced its reputation for the weird and the strange, but it has also developed a standing as one of the most messy TV programs when it comes to storytelling. It throws all the right ideas into the mix, but fails to focus on any one long enough to make it worth investing in. The recent revelation that the series’ anthologies take place within the same universe has the potential to shake up this trend, but it is also a turn that’s become quite divisive among fans. How this interconnectedness is handled in 2015’s effort is likely to decide the fate of the series, proving to be either another nail in the coffin or a bold step into the unknown. The anthology format made American Horror Story the success story it is, and the abandonment of the device could be a game-changer for the future of the series.

By reviving the anthology format, American Horror Story carved out its own niche between serialized and episodic storytelling. It paved the way for fantastic anthology series like True Detective and Fargo, not to mention its own spin-off, American Crime Story. Connecting the dots between each of the series’ efforts could throw everything fans know on its head and give Murphy and Falchuk the chance to transcend their inspirations and make the show as good as everyone thinks it is.