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?
Episode six opened with text saying that “My Roanoake Nightmare was the television success story of 2015,” garnering “23 million viewers by its finale, topping that week’s airing of Sunday Night Football, Empire, and The Walking Dead,” adding that the network had asked the producer to create a follow-up series. Suddenly we were in the incongruous-feeling environment of Southern California, watching Roanoake’s producer Sid (Cheyenne Jackson) negotiate with studio heads, actors, and the documentary’s subjects to film a new show: Return to Roanoke, a Big Brother-like experiment where Shelby, Matt, and the actors from the original series go back to the house that was now festooned with hidden cameras as the producers would secretly create scares. Sid’s followed by a film crew at all times—“the camera never stops,” he instructs.
This conceit—a show within a show about the making of a show about the previous show within a show—is mind-bendy is all the right ways. The actors, film crew, and viewing audience within American Horror Story don’t seem to believe that Matt and Shelby actually encountered the supernatural. Quickly, though, it starts to appear they were wrong as horrible things start happening on set in North Carolina. Toward the end of episode six, on-screen text tells us that the show from here out is assembled from found footage because all but one member of the cast and crew died during filming. And indeed, episode seven begins with an axe-murder spree felling Sid and his producers—all told from the point of view of the victims’ cameras. But as you watch, you have to keep in mind the possibility that even this layer of action may be staged. Which is a funny thing to wonder about because, of course, it all is staged by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Less abstractly, the premise of Return to Roanoke lets American Horror Story get a lot scarier. The proposition of the first five episodes is flipped: Instead of knowing all the important characters survive, you know that all but one died, reintroducing crucial suspense. And moreover, as the characters begin to live through a “real” version of the nightmare portrayed in the “original” series, Murphy and Falchuk get grimier. No longer are vengeful spirits or crazed locals played by well-lit recognizable actors; the villains are more menacing and, for now, less knowable. The witch once played by Lady Gaga makes only a furtive appearance in the corner of the frame: She’s not mugging to the cameras. Cuba Gooding Jr., speaking as a professional actor, encounters a pool of blood and says he’s played in enough horror films to know it’s not corn syrup. And in an exquisite moment at the end of episode seven, Kathy Bates’s character—Agnes Mary Winstead, an actress who’s gone insane with the belief that she’s been possessed by the ghost she played in My Ronoake Nightmare—comes face to face with the actual ghost she played, who looks even less friendly than Bates ever did in the role.
In clear callbacks to The Blair Witch Project, the show is offering an exhaustive dissection of the found-footage trend that’s dominated the horror genre in the new millennium, while also working in the most garish tropes of slasher films and torture porn. And the reality-TV conceit allows for a savage satire of Hollywood profiteering, the social-media era, and the un-supernatural nastiness that drives most human conflict: Most of the killings so far have been by humans, not ghosts, with the most vivid one resulting from reality-TV’s manipulation of personal jealousy taken to disgusting extremes. A layer of suspense lies in the fact that the show may well fold in on itself again, revealing yet another layer of meta-filmmaking. Even if it doesn’t, and even if the plot now spirals into incoherence in the manner of all previous American Horror Story seasons, there’s no taking away from the daringness of what Murphy and Falchuk have attempted here.