Every year, I partake in one particular autumn tradition against my own better judgment: I watch the first episode of American Horror Story, getting all my hopes up, absolutely knowing that I’m going to be disappointed.
Many of my colleagues wonder why I even give this show the time of day when it hasn’t been reliably good since the second season. I can’t really tell you, because I’m not quite so sure myself. Maybe it’s because sometimes, in the overwhelmingly indistinguishable sludge that is American Horror Story most days, every so often there is a glimmer of something more. A brief glimpse of potential for the show that I know AHS can be, but seldom is. And sometimes (rarely), Ryan Murphy still strikes gold.
Here’s the thing about American Horror Story: The themes always slap. The opening sequences, which are all tailored to whatever the season’s concept is, all exemplify the rich potential of those themes. Asylum’s does a particularly chilling swap with a statue of the Virgin Mary; 1984’s oozes retro vibes (and also blood), and the decaying carnival trinkets of Freak Show’s are more sinister than anything in the actual show. Which is, unfortunately, the case for many AHS seasons. A lot of the time, those opening sequences are a lot more entertaining than the season ends up being.
Still, like a siren call, they lure me in. A half-season that takes place in a desolated New England town, where artists struggle for inspiration as bleak gray waves pound the shore? An homage to 1980s slasher flicks, filled with garish costumes and self-referential tropey characters? A haunted hotel where one’s own inner darkness lurks in the long, unsettling hallways (with “Hotel California” playing)? I am a sucker for these themes! They’re so promising, and yet they rarely, if ever, fulfill their potential.
I suspect that AHS’ biggest issue is the same problem I have with fanfic: The writers have a ton of cool ideas, but the moment they sit down and start to commit to one concept, they immediately get bored and move on to the next new and exciting thing. Only in this case, they kinda have to finish up a season and not just abandon the Google Doc forever. So they rush the ending, and then move on to the next bright, shiny idea. The American Horror Stories series exemplifies this. Not to be confused with the main series, it’s full of one-off episodes that all seem like first drafts of a whole season that got rejected. (The first two episodes are basically a reboot-sequel of Murder House, the first AHS season.)
But every year, I am drawn into the rich potential of the new American Horror Story season. And with one incredibly notable exception, I’ve been let down every single season past the third (and even the third was a little wonky, but it was also personally tailored to my interests, so it’s my favorite). But although they have all ultimately disappointed me, there were still moments in each season that made me remember just why I ate the show up like a kid coming home from trick-or-treating.
Because, yeah, Apocalypse was overly indulgent, but seeing Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau pop back up did make me audibly cheer. Hotel might’ve been a mess, but bartender Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare) had a beautifully evocative and emotional arc that made me weep. Roanoke fumbled the landing, but the first half was so perfectly unsettling, pulling off hauntings and dread with the utmost finesse. Even Double Feature, which I hated so passionately, had such an atmospheric setup that I feel mournful for the lost potential instead of feeling indifferent to the show’s mediocrity. Even at its worst, AHS makes me feel something big.
And when the show is good, it’s fucking good. Take last season, which defied all my expectations. The first few episodes of AHS: NYC had me a bit wary, especially since Murphy seemed to be spinning up a fictionalized Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who’s haunted many of his projects. But that character was just a small part in the overall narrative, which was less about killers and hauntings and more about the horror of being a queer person in the midst of the AIDS crisis, fighting for one’s life when society doesn’t give a damn. It was haunting! Chilling! It was the best that this stupid show has been since the first two seasons.
With Delicate looming, I am tentatively hopeful. After all, there’s a totally new showrunner who’s never written for AHS before, and it’s based on something, instead of just spun up from Murphy’s head. But at the same time, I know better. I am steeling myself. I am ready to be disappointed. Most of all, though, I am ready to feel something enormous.
American Horror Story: Delicate premieres on Sept. 20 on FX at 10 p.m. EDT. It will air on Hulu the next day.