TV

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image