When American Horror Story first entered the television mainstream on FX in 2011, this mini-series was a lesser known, almost invisible series. The show barely received any notoriety or promotion other than Jessica Lange was co-starring in it. The veteran actress’ reemergence in mainstream acting was the only push the show offered as enticement to the viewing public. Yet this, mixed with audiences’ hunger for a television horror series, was enough to gain traction and give the show the premiere it demanded and needed to continue onwards. Yet something happened that nobody anticipated regarding the show: it redefined how television can be filmed and reinvented how a show may be presented. Since 2011, other popular shows that have gained their own audiences, owe credit to American Horror Story’s reinvention of series format.
Producer Ryan Murphy’s decision to make each season stand-alone isn’t necessarily a new concept or idea. Shows, such as 24, hinged on the premise that the series of events within its season functioned almost as an extended novel. 24 set the foundation that shows didn’t need to be episodic, but rather could be intelligent enough to have its own extended plotline. Furthermore, 24 introduced the concept that each season could function as its own entity. The one thing that linked such seasons together was common motifs, characters, and situations. For 24, that was Jack Bauer continually fighting terrorism. The cast changed frequently, but Jack Bauer was the one guarantee that audiences would see each season. American Horror Story adopted this style of narrative storytelling, but did the opposite by providing zero carryover in plot. The show goes out of its way to make each of its seasons a single entity and devoid of connection regarding plotline. Its characters, setting, even the era in which each season takes place has close to zero correlation with each other. That is part of the brilliance of American Horror Story with its decision to make its stories isolated, which contributes the eerie sense that audiences are not supposed to be aware of such events that have occurred. This allows for the audience to feel that they are privy to the forbidden and the dark underworld that they discreetly long to witness. Furthermore, this style of separating the seasons as their own entities has been an inspiration for newer shows, such as the popular True Detective or the recently Golden Globe winner mini-series Fargo. Already both of these shows have recently announced their new seasons would be their own individual plotlines, separate from their first season counterpart.
It ought to be noted that the aim for American Horror Story is not to be overtly scary or cater to those who are out for a cheap scream. While the show does offer some grotesque scenes that give those type of fans the quick screams, American Horror Story spends more time focusing on its plot and characters. The show is careful not to become gimmicky and predictable in format. Instead, the show is filmed in a method that even Alfred Hitchcock would have looked upon in admiration. The show aims for its audience to create a connection with the characters and feel involved in their plight as the plot progresses onwards. American Horror Story seeks to establish character motivations, love interests and the development of evil. For that, American Horror Story showed how the horror genre is capable of being frightening and situational, while being dense in drama as well. This style of horror-filming has truly been seen since the making The Exorcist or The Omen, where their focus was upon the script and how the situations could elicit memorable horror to its audience. American Horror Story effectively reminds audiences that classic-horror is the proper demeanor for the show, using its multiple storylines as puzzle pieces that contribute to the season’s overall climax.
American Horror Story’s multiple storylines are indicative and dependent upon the show’s cast. Yet here in lies the brilliance of the show: The decision to recycle the same cast each season, but have them portray completely different characters each season. This is something unheard of in a television series, a motif that has only been mirrored by variety shows, such as Saturday Night Live. It seems evident that this casting choice reinforces the show’s premise of having each of its seasons being stand-alone. In effect, the show demands that the actors deliver unique performances that show zero correlation with each other. This is a particularly difficult task for the cast, yet each of them takes up the task and are able to deliver performances that sometimes are nearly polar-opposites to their former performances. This style of acting is new for television and has redefined the expectations for actors in a television series.
Subsequently, American Horror Story has gained a reputation for being the show of comebacks. Jessica Lange wasn’t necessarily invisible in Hollywood, but she had a lot of her notoriety missing after her second Oscar win in 1994 for Blue Sky. She found herself in smaller roles up until the time she did her first role on American Horror Story. Since her first performance as Constance Langdon in season 1, Lange has become a sensation in Hollywood by proving that an actor/actress can maximize the possibilities of a role, even if it is within the horror genre. Additionally, Frances Conroy has reignited her career after nearly disappearing once her fascinating performance as Ruth Fisher concluded on the hit HBO series Six Feet Under. Doing a performance that easily could have been forgotten, Conroy provided a delivery that was as intriguing, if not as equal as Lange’s brilliance. Just like Lange, Conroy has established herself as a necessary and integral part of the show. For both actresses, they are acting chameleons, completely disappearing into the characters they portray. Their work continues to inspire and attract other acting greats, who also have nearly vanished from the public eye, most recently being Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. American Horror Story has become a show that many actors desire to be a part of, a feat that should be attributed to Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy, who both have proved that television can function as a comeback medium. Even more importantly, American Horror Story has reminded acting greats that they do not need to limit themselves to strictly film in order to act in something that has substance. The most recent example of this is Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective.
Extending beyond comebacks, American Horror Story has functioned as a vehicle of discovery for numerous actors, who have established themselves as acting greats by merely having a role in this show. Sarah Paulson, for instance, was relatively unknown at the time she did three episodes in the show’s first season. Yet Paulson was able to provide some of the most compelling scenes with Jessica Lange in those three episodes, to which she was able to elevate herself to a series regular and co-leading with Lange in all subsequent seasons since. The same functioned for Denis O’Hare, who was a small bit actor before he started acting on American Horror Story. His surprise performance as a burn victim turned stalker was so captivating in the show’s first season that it defined him as an actor worth recognizing. His acting has remained consistent and he currently is starring as one of the current season’s villains. However, one of the most astounding of acting discoveries is that of Lily Rabe, whose first role in the series as a ghost of a house notorious for murders, was one of the most memorable characters in the first season. Moreover, it was the second season, Asylum, that established Rabe as an remarkable actress with her frightening role of a nun who has been possessed by a demon. Even with the current season, the show has discovered Finn Wittrock, who stars as the spoiled rich-boy turned serial killer. A relatively unknown actor when the season began, he now has become the standout role of the season. Viewers already are demanding and hoping Wittrock will make an appearance in the show’s next season. These examples do show how American Horror Story reminded audiences that acting greats can be discovered from a mere show.
Lastly, American Horror Story reinvigorated the idea of providing main titles that set the aura and is representative of the series as a whole. The concept of main titles has been a dying art with television, with many being either too generic (Desperate Housewives), too bland (Homeland), or extremely brief (Lost, Breaking Bad). The shows that do utilize extended main titles do it merely as a means to provide the concept of setting. American Horror Story uses its main titles not as an establishment of setting, but establishing the aura of the season. The main titles demand that the audience supplant their notion of reality and replace it with a renewed form of reality fueled by commonly-associated fears. The main titles further establish the notion of the show being within the horror genre with each season adopting new components of horror. For instance, the first season’s imagery of severed body parts in mason jars sync with viewers’ fears of not truly knowing what happens behind closed doors. Asylum’s main title imagery focused on the mentally deranged, which feeds into the fear of psychotics and their unpredictability. Coven’s imagery focused on voodoo dolls and witchcraft, which fed into fears of black magic. Freak Show, the current season, is the most apparent in setting the aura and feeding into the fears of viewers by incorporating a carnival theme to its main titles juxtaposed with imagery of deranged and murderous clowns. Altogether, the main titles of American Horror Story is horror artistry at its finest and is the only show that actually utilizes its main titles as a means to set the mood for the show.
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American Horror Story, a show that wasn’t ever expected to live past its first season, has been revolutionary in the television world. The format of the show of having each of its seasons be its own entity is now a trend in television, which was started by American Horror Story. The choice of recycling its cast was risky, but has been proven to be effective with the show. This is due to the show’s solid script writing and its cast utilizing every facet available to them to provide performances that are separate from other seasons, but impactful on a stand-alone level. Furthermore, American Horror Story has reminded actors and audiences alike that television can stand for a discovery AND comeback medium. American Horror Story doesn’t seem to be halting in production any time soon and one can only expect that the show will continue to dazzle and frighten future audiences, while continuing to inspire a new evolution of television.