FX

At last, at last, American Horror Story aired an episode that was simply an American horror story—not an American fever dream and tonal pastiche featuring supernatural rapists, non-essential enema scenes, muddled social commentary, and the misuse of Broadway’s most venerated talents. The theme for the sixth season had been kept a secret ahead of time, but the greatest revelation of the premiere wasn’t about setting but about the power of restraint: Here were simply three main characters, getting scared, and getting scared well.

Though, really, it was six main characters. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, have either sown the seeds of overcomplication or found a useful governor for their own ambitions by fabricating a true-crime documentary series, with actors reenacting a terrifying tale told by “real” people. This allows American Horror Story to continue accessing its rolodex of great character actors without necessarily adding more characters: The likes of Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson get tons of screentime, but by playing the same people. The concept will probably also launch dozens of graduate theses on post-modern double consciousness, meta-fictional framing devices, and the renaissance of Cuba Gooding Jr.

The faux docu-series is called My Roanoke Nightmare, which is apparently also the subtitle for this season of American Horror Story despite the fact that it’s a few more syllables than the previous anthologies’ names were. It follows the present-day married couple Shelby (the “real” version played by Rabe, giving an interview to a camera; the “fake” played by Paulson, re-enacting the story) and Matt (played by André Holland, played by Gooding Jr.), who move to a remote North Carolina mansion after a run-in with crime sours them on city life. Supernatural disturbances ensue, leading Matt’s ex-cop sister Lee (played by Adina Porter, played by Angela Bassett) to visit and experience the mayhem first-hand.

Murphy and Falchuk have always excelled at creating moments and concepts but struggled at A-to-B plot mechanics, which means the tell-not-show nature of documentary narration here is actually an asset, allowing them to coherently move from one set piece to the next. And those set pieces are, so far, pretty righteous. The premiere served up a clutch of genuine frights and, as importantly, instantly memorable images: a mysterious wine bottle rolling down a hallway, a hailstorm of human teeth, found footage involving a pig’s head, a zombified Kathy Bates rising from a darkened roadside holding a knife glinting in headlights. None of it innovated on horror tradition—echoes of The Blair Witch Project, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Amityville Horror abounded—but the creep-outs were executed with careful timing and visual flair.

The documentary aspect and the limited cast size thus far has also offered convincing, grounded characterization of the leads—and more importantly, characterization of their relationships. This means there’s potential for a compelling family drama, which means there’s potential for compelling dramatic stakes, both of which the show has increasingly lacked since its first and best season, Murder House. In fact, that season seems like a clear and heartening reference point for this one in ways explicit (the historical Roanoke Colony mystery figures into both) and implied (both seasons follow a family trying to find peace by moving across the country … and into a haunted house).

The secrecy ahead of the premiere might have just been a promotional gimmick: FX put out two dozen teaser-trailers, with only one of them actually tipping what the series would be about (turns out, the correct spot was the one with a wind chime made of teeth—so obvious, right?). But watching the debut episode did offer a feeling that’s become rare in modern film culture: true surprise, the thrill of not even knowing what the setting would be and which actors would be showing up. (It was a small delight when Wes Bentley and Chaz Bono made momentary appearances, and the end credits named the yet-unseen Denis O’Hare, Evan Peters, and Cheyenne Jackson as being part of the main cast.) This was bona fide event viewing, and the unusually focused, limited scope of the story in the first hour allowed the premiere to cleanly satisfy the hype in a way that American Horror Story rarely has—though fans were deprived of one of the show’s classic pleasures, a title sequence.

Of course, future episodes will not be able to ambush the audience so effectively (there are real preview clips now), and the show’s habit for squandering good premises with ever-growing amounts of plot clutter is well established. But perhaps the documentary format will keep the creators in line: They have to make a show that they could imagine someone other than themselves daring to make.

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