The FX series’ sixth season is staging mockumentaries within mockumentaries in its exploration of reality, perception, and gore.
American Horror Story has turned into something genuinely original and inspired this season, though it’s no simple matter to explain why. FX made a big deal about not revealing ahead of time what the sixth outing of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s slasher anthology would be about; it’s now clear this was less a marketing stunt than a way of dealing with the fact that the season doesn’t lend itself to capsule descriptions—and is exceedingly reliant on surprise. I’m now going to spoil the surprise. If you’ve not kept up out of a disinterest in butcher-knife gore and coerced cannibalism but do want to know about one of the most interesting experiments in TV right now, read ahead.
The first five episodes presented themselves as a true-crime documentary series called My Roanoke Nightmare, which had a married couple, Matt and Shelby (André Holland and Lily Rabe), testifying about moving to a house in rural North Carolina that turned out to be haunted by the spirits of colonists who vanished in the 16th century. Actors re-enacted Matt and Shelby’s story, with the people we recognize as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sarah Paulson playing the couple, Angela Bassett playing Matt’s sister, Lee (whose “real” version is played by Adina Porter), and Kathy Bates, Evan Peters, Lady Gaga, and others as supernatural figures. The result were a straightforwardly harrowing tale of surviving ghosts and witches and evil hillbillies. Because Matt, Shelby, and Lea were giving interviews, a safety net underlay the action: Viewers knew who was going to survive. But by the time the characters escaped their perils at the end of episode five, the documentary gimmick had started to feel one-note. Where could the show go from there?