An Impolite Horror Story

"American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought it Through This Time" (thank you, Difficult People)

Impolite Conversation is switching it up a bit this month! Up until this post, we’ve exclusively reviewed films. But! American Horror Story is returning to TV tonight (September 14th) for its 6th season, American Horror Story: Subtitle Still Unknown Because We’re Being Obnoxious.

AHS is unique show in a currently overstuffed “Peak TV” landscape, and Cole & Clarice have some feels (big damn surprise, right?)

In essence? We have a VERY complicated (some may say abusive) relationship with American Horror Story (AHS).

When we first started watching, we absolutely loved it (with mild quibbles and grumbles here and there, of course.) It was brazen and campy, but could also be legitimately creepy and/or emotionally moving at times. Ryan Murphy himself was a gay creator who brought an individual perspective and intent, and focused heavily on women (particularly older women).

Basically, we were (and still are) the ideal demographic for Murphy/AHS. We are EXACTLY Ryan Murphy’s audience.

But as seasons wore on, all those quibbles and grumbles started repeating themselves over and over again. And not only repeating… but compounding. The tonal zig-zags, careless storytelling that gives up halfway through the season, and stubborn resistance to specific world definitions that were once minor complaints began defining the show more than all that good stuff we loved.

Going forward here’s how our AHS viewing breaks down:

Cole has watched all of Seasons 1-3, the first 5 episodes of Season 4 (Freak Show), and first 4 episodes of Season 5 (Hotel). And Clarice has watched all of Seasons 1-4, and only the first 4 episodes of Season 5 as well (they quit that one together, and we’ll talk about it.)

So we’re going to break this down a bit by discussing Seasons 1-3 individually, and then we’ll start in on Why We Quit (and talk about season 4-5 at the same time.)

Spoilers, obviously.

 

“Murder House”

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Clarice: I think this may still boil down to being my favorite season of AHS. And I promise it’s not because of Chad. (Or at least it’s not just because of Chad…)   

Cole: It’s definitely the season that sticks closest to its point. It’s the smallest, most contained season, and it benefits massively from that scale. Furthermore, it sets the standard of exploring concepts of American horror with an honest lens.

Clarice: Absolutely. Murder House represents the most focused and centered thesis of American Horror Story. It’s about needling at specifically American fears which largely revolve around threat(s) to Puritan-based morals and a particular conception of “the home” (as exemplified by the nuclear suburban family.) In other words, you’re looking at things like divorce and the dissolution of families; troubled/unruly teenagers; the anxieties of pregnancy; gay sex; kinky sex; gay kinky sex; sex in general really… and so on.

Cole: Which is awesome. Especially when Murder House tackles those sensitive subjects with a refreshing frankness. It’s a clever season of television. I would even go so far as to say groundbreaking. Would you agree?

Clarice: Certainly. When American Horror Story: Murder House struck, there was nothing quite like it in on tv. And when I watched it for the first time, I couldn’t think of anything I’d seen that quite shared its “tone poem” style. Of course now anthology shows are de rigueur.  

Cole: This is true. Murder House avoids falling into many of the now classic AHS traps. Firstly, by merit of being first. Secondly, because of its smaller size its intent never gets obscured by extravagance. For instance (and we’ll discuss this in more detail later): AHS has a tendency to get carried away with violence towards gay men. Season 1 is no exception. Chad and Patrick are horrifically and brutally murdered, a murder which includes Patrick being sodomized with a fire poker. It avoids the glut of later seasons by actually drawing from historical punishments and methods of execution for homosexual men and from the fact that every other character, excepting one, also dies brutally.

Clarice: You’re right. But I dunno… I think it’s an added element of insult to injury (so to speak) that is still unnecessary, and isn’t applied to the other murders.

Cole: Very true. It is, to my memory, the most specifically graphic death sequence in the season and, in hindsight, becomes part of a larger, overarching issue in AHS.

 

“Asylum”

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Cole: Asylum might beat out Murder House as my favorite season, but it’s a close race. If Murder House set the precedent for thoughtful, upfront exploration and examination of American horror, Asylum took up the torch while also having the distinction of being the only season to successfully merge the blueprint of Season 1 with the grandiose stylings that dominate later seasons.

Clarice: It’s probably the richest season. It has a shit ton of plotlines that don’t always gel as they should, and there are seemingly infinite tangents… But AHS was never about stories so much as moods. And this one is ambitious.    

Cole: It has a lot packed in, but in so many ways this season is on fire.

Clarice: It is. Joseph Fiennes plays a priest! There are demons; bespectacled serial killers; crazy ex-Nazi doctors; aliens; Chloe Sevigny…

Cole: Don’t forget the Angel of Death!   

Clarice: Yes! My favorite of all Francis Conroy’s AHS roles!

Cole: So fabulous.

Clarice: And I think you’re right about this being the only season to successfully merge the grandiosity/spectacle/wackiness successfully with the more grounded elements. If Murder House represents the most focused and centered thesis of AHS, then Asylum might actually be the crowning achievement of what the show wanted to grow into. We’re talking about a season of television where Adam Levine gets his arms ripped off (which is hilarious) and everyone in the asylum breaks out in a random dance number (because why the fuck not?). But it’s also a season that gives us Lana Winters (and all the stuff that comes with her.)

Cole: Lana is probably one of the most complex characters AHS has ever presented.

Clarice: Oh I think you could argue she is the most complex character. She’s a legit layered person. She’s someone who becomes difficult to parse and reconcile by the end — and I absolutely mean that in a good way. It’s awesome that Lana is allowed to be conflicting. She’s allowed to be sympathetic and infuriating. I like that. Her arc prompts discussions on a variety of levels. And Sarah Paulson slays the role.

Cole: She really, really does. Sarah Paulson leads the cast in what is probably still a series best role (even now, going into Season 6). You mentioned this being AHS’s crowning achievement earlier and I think that’s an apt way to describe it. It’s a season that should have defined the direction of the series from that point onward, blending the grounded nature of Murder House beautifully with a wonderfully bonkers, madcap out-of-this-world pace and tone with the occasional musical tangent. Unfortunately, instead of being one of many such seasons it remains a lonely standard, because while later seasons have the madcap and certainly the occasional musical tangent, they lose the grounded aspect so vital to keeping the show from straying into dangerous and offensive territory.

 

“Coven”

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Clarice: Cole, I know you have more affection for Coven than I do. I feel mostly indifferent about most of it.

Cole: That’s fair. This season is, without a doubt, a muddled mess. I enjoy it in a popcorn-munching, watching a trainwreck kind of way. For me, it is at least still trying to to merge the overall more serious tones of Seasons 1 & 2 with the more expansive, grandiose trappings introduced in Asylum (though Coven takes them to new, far less balanced heights). Coven is all over the damn place, but I get a major kick out of the performances (Angela Bassett in particular) and, even at its worst, it remains a level of bad I can appreciate and enjoy.

Clarice: Angela Bassett proves to be a great addition, yes. Especially introducing her as a scene-munching foil to Jessica Lange (who you can almost feel starting to get bored here.) In general it’s a very female-focused season. Which is awesome… except for how much or crucial anybody is at any given time is like a roll of the dice depending on the episode. CONSISTENCY IS ALL I ASK, RYAN MURPHY.

Cole: Seriously though.

Clarice: Sure — we get Kathy Bates’ severed head watching all of “Roots,” and Misty Day floating around, popping people back to life right and left (so much love for Lily Rabe this season!) That’s all fun. But then you get stuff like the whole Gabourey Sidibe/Minotaur thing  and Misty Day’s end. Those are less fun. We both to this day will still occasionally rage about the latter.

Cole: Yup. The Misty Day Rant is a well established cornerstone of our AHS related conversations at this point.

Clarice: And as much as I enjoy all the women shenanigans both epic and petty, I really think Evan Peters’ character in this one is a travesty (and that’s not Evan Peters’ fault).

Cole: Nope. Not his fault at all. He’s given nothing to do but grunt the majority of the time he’s on screen. And after Tate in Murder House and Kit in Asylum it feels like the waste of a good actor (and also a potentially complex character study.) BUT. I also think it’s fair to say this season contains a couple of our all-time favorite AHS sequences?

Clarice: Yes, that’s fair. I assume you’re specifically referring to the silent film “seven wonders” exposition sequence? And the finale’s opening Stevie Nicks “Seven Wonders” music video which made our jaws drop open with glee?

Cole: I am indeed! And our jaws did drop because that musical sequence is AMAZING.

Clarice: But those are literally the last two episodes, Cole!!  

Cole: This is true. And as wonderful as those two sequences are they do not make up for the many other issues present (including Misty Day’s death in the exact same episode…)

Clarice: All in all it’s the campiest of seasons. And that is saying something because AHS has always had a thick vein of campiness running through it. Murder House and Asylum certainly both had that element, and inherently it’s not a bad thing. Hell, it’s part of what makes the show enjoyable! But Coven takes the idea and doubles down on it. Hard. (Triples down?) And taken in hindsight, this was clearly the beginning of trouble.

Cole: I’ll put in a vote for triples down. And, yes, it was most certainly the first sign of what was to come. I remember watching Coven and thinking: This isn’t good but it’s dumb fun and if they want to deviate into something like this for a season, why not? I thought season four would be a return to form.

Clarice: It did not do that.

Cole: No. No, it did not.

 

Why We (Sort of) Quit

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Clarice: Well as we disclosed above I did watch all of Freak Show. But Cole, you quit back then. Because you were smarter than me.

Cole: Yup! I quit after episode 5. The tone of this season was wonky. Any sense of actual commentary or unpacking of American horror tropes is faint to the point of non-existence. This is the season where I really started to feel like the horror wasn’t ironic or purposeful in a culturally explorative manner but rather over-the-top, gratuitous and in extremely bad taste.

Clarice: ‘Exploitative’ vs. ‘explorative.’ As someone who suffered through the whole season, I do think the best stuff was at the beginning, in those first handful of episodes leading up to Halloween. — i.e. when the murdery clown was running around, and Francis Conroy & Finn Wittrock were playing out an amazingly bizarre/fucked-up mother-son relationship. Then it all disappears. Once Edward Mordrake rocks up in his green mist during “Gods & Monsters” (the best sequence all season), it’s all downhill afterwards. Suddenly we’re slowly killing off all the freaks… and Emma Roberts is there… and everything just tediously limps to the end. They blew through their good material in the first half. And hey, it’s common for AHS to slack in the back half of its seasons, but Freak Show suffers from it the worst.

Cole: I quit this season less out of rage, and more out of exhaustion with certain recurring issues and indifference to what the season was primarily focusing on in terms of character and plot (what little existed). I think it’s safe to say that, for both of us, Hotel was a full on rage quit.

Clarice: It was. Not even Evan Peters’ performance as James Patrick March could save things (which hurts because it was definitely the best role Peters had in seasons, and arguably the best one he’s had total.) Unfortunately the problem was that by the time we hit Season 5, AHS compounded on its exaggerated, hyper-specific attention to violence against its gay men. (And I do mean men particularly — Lana from season 2 endures horror after horror, certainly, but she never loses agency, and in the end does survive.)

Cole: It’s a great big terrible fuck you snowball effect. Our breaking point with Hotel was the dinner of serial killers in episode 4. March has summoned the ghosts of some of modern history’s most infamous serial killers including Eileen Wuornos and the Zodiac Killer. And then there’s Jeffrey Dahmer (played by Seth Gabel of Fringe fame to add even more insult and injury). This was the scene that broke us. I was in horrified tears which quickly evaporated into rage. The word that keeps coming to my mind is tasteless, which is a light word for what the scene is doing overall.

Clarice: ‘Tasteless’ does seem rather forgiving considering you’re looking at a scene in which Dahmer (why, Seth Gabel?? Why??) umm… ‘toys with?’ (also a forgiving phrase) a drugged young man. It plays directly into that ugly, dated trope about gay men being lecherous and predatory (in case we didn’t already cover that territory with Denis O’Hare’s character in Season 4). AND this all follows on the heels of episodes where we’ve watched Max Greenfield’s character get sodomized to death… and Cheyenne Jackson’s stated gay character still being eager to sleep with Vampire Lady Gaga (because…?)(and yeah, that’s how that works). AND YES I CALLED HER A VAMPIRE! BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT SHE WAS!

Cole: And then you also have that wondrous (that was a sarcastic “wondrous” just so we’re very clear) line from Finn Wittrock’s character that goes along the rough lines of: “Just because I’m sucking on a dude doesn’t make me gay.” We were watching that episode together and I believe we paused and both shouted “What the Fuck?!” very loudly…

Clarice: Haha. I believe that is exactly how it went! There is something weirdly galling about that line, isn’t there? Maybe because it perfectly encapsulates the gratuitous homophobia that became strangely emblematic? And/or there is literally no point or purpose to it other than ‘ha ha get it — because homophobia.’ It wasn’t even character-definitive! For me, no amount of Liz Taylor (or Wittrock’s ensuing romance with her from what I hear) makes up for any of this. (And it’s a tragic romance at that.) 

Cole: Nope! It does not. And while AHS is an anthology show with a finger on the reset button every season, it does cash in on overarching themes. And, unfortunately, a poor sense of irony and context is one of the big ones. It’s a pile on effect from previous seasons and my patience for it is becoming increasingly thin.

Take Freak Show for instance: There is SO MUCH horror towards gay men packed into the first five episodes. Yes, it’s the 1950s. Yes, it was a HORRIBLE time to be gay. But this show is being made in the context of a world where the LGBT community is battling for civil rights and acts of extreme violence are still regularly perpetrated on that community. Freak Show may be a period piece but it has to be aware of that context. There are ways of showing the pain and danger of being gay in 1950s America without showing a gay man being dismembered alive, another one having his neck snapped and another being deviously evil (or, you know, two of the four gay characters introduced being prostitutes?) It may be depicting a certain time period but there are dangerous stereotypes in the modern day being reinforced because the show does not explore these themes in depth. Rather, it throws them up on the screen with little story, character detail or attention.

Clarice: Would you say ‘irresponsible’ is a good word for it?

Cole: Yeah, actually. That’s a very good word for it. I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional but that doesn’t make it better.

Clarice: I would assume much of this stems from Murphy finding personal horror in those things. But at some point the broader conversation needs to happen (and it is, thankfully) about when indulging in “ironic” homophobia, sexism, racism, bigotry stops being ‘entertainingly ironic’ and only ends up contributing to the toxic swill / becomes part of the problem.

Stories/media do not exist in cultural vacuums! There is a very real, ongoing struggle for representation and inclusivity in tv/film/books/comics/etc… But yeah sure, let’s squander our depressingly limited opportunities for depicting queer characters on popular television by persisting in this kind of bullshit with them. That seems totally productive! And not a frustrating waste at all! How the fuck did we go from Murder House essentially gleefully poking at conservative fears to just blatantly punishing queer characters for being queer? It’s like AHS thematically turns on its audience, moving from being on their side to deriving its entertainment at their expense.

Cole: This show is an anthology. Ostensibly, each season is exploring various aspects and facets of American horror. So characters are going to die. Horrible things are going to happen. And it makes a lot of sense that violence towards women, gay men and racial minorities would feature heavily in AHS. They are cornerstones of horrific, fear-inducing, culture-defining acts in American history. But. Along the way AHS lost its sense of commentary. It’s no longer using these features of horror as exploration of the American psyche. Rather, it seems to be glorifying in gorier, gaudier and more explicit depictions, losing track of any mirror it’s attempting to hold up for viewers and instead just trying to top the previous season with something more shocking and gruesome. And because it’s so focused on the spectacle of horror the show’s writing and intent suffers.

Clarice: Well put. And to think: we didn’t even pull ANY of Scream Queens into this discussion…

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Clarice: And hey — remember how we said our relationship was complicated (if not abusive)? Proof: despite everything we just said, we will totally be watching the season 6 premiere tonight.

Cole: We will indeed! Even if it’s only out of a morbid curiosity over whether or not our many issues with AHS continue to compound.