Recently, the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg verbalized something to me that perfectly crystallized something I've been thinking about for a while. We're all waiting, she said, and I paraphrase, for another Sopranos to change the face of TV drama all over again.
The Sopranos blew open our ideas of who could be a protagonist that viewers would follow from week to week. It made it all but mandatory that TV stories have greater scope than single episodes to be taken seriously. And it also made TV safer for experimental, elliptical stories, where things don't always end in a satisfying fashion. Until we find another show that blows open our assumptions about what TV is capable of like David Chase's ingenious series, a lot of what's on the air can feel like diminishing returns.
Now, there's a lot of great TV out there right now. But in the drama sphere, Rosenberg is right. I may love shows as diverse as The Americans, Rectify, Hannibal, and Orange Is the New Black, but all four series are either direct descendants of The Sopranos, conscious responses to it, or shows that head off in new directions but also feel like they'll struggle to influence other shows because of their idiosyncrasies.
But think a little more, and it seems clear that there's a show on the air that has been as template-shattering and influential as The Sopranos. It's just a hugely controversial show that's never quite been as good as it could have been, so it's easy to miss just how much it's changed television. Its name is American Horror Story, and it's become an accidental milestone.
The show returns tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern, for "Freak Show," its fourth iteration. Here are a handful of ways its affected TV storytelling — in ways that remain frustratingly incomplete.
1) AHS revived the anthology drama
It's easy to forget, now that the anthology drama — a show that tells a new story with new characters in every season (or, more traditionally, in every episode) — is the hottest trend on TV, counting such series as HBO's True Detective and FX's Fargo among its members, but when Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy announced at the end of season one that the show would tell a different story with a new setting and new characters every season, it was one of the most unexpected, exciting moments in recent TV history.
The struggle of the serialized drama has always been that of weight, of the way that old storylines crop up and crowd out everything else. (Homeland, for instance, is dealing with this right now.) Other shows had considered season-long stories that would lead to complete reboots with every new season — 24 and Heroes among them — but Horror Story was the first to pull the trigger.
And now the airwaves are filled with shows that act just like it, with even more coming (including Murphy's upcoming, almost certainly ill-advised American Crime Story, which will dramatize the O.J. Simpson trial for its first season). Most of these are bare evolutions of "case of the season" shows like The Killing, but the sheer ability to reinvent every season, to toss out what doesn't work and embrace something completely new, may end up being Murphy's most sizable contribution to television.
If American Horror Story can serve as a cautionary tale, it's in the fact that these shows seem unlikely to differ all that much from season to season, so long as they have the same creative team behind the scenes. "Freak Show" features another grand dame played by Jessica Lange, another character on the edge of a breaking point played by Sarah Paulson, and even more weird tonal shifts that ultimately go nowhere. And if the great episodic anthology dramas of TV's past — like The Twilight Zone — are any indication, this is a remarkably difficult box to break out of. It will be interesting to see if True Detective and Fargo can manage the trick.
2) AHS helped push TV toward storytelling based on scenes
The usual storytelling unit of TV was the episode, and at its best, the episode could be a perfect encapsulation of the series in miniature. (The Sopranos was expert at this.) String enough of those great episodes together and get a great show.
What Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk realized, perhaps bolstered by their success on Glee, was that in an era when people can watch what they want when they want, and often consume as many episodes in a sitting as possible, the episode ceases to have meaning. If you're a Horror Story fan, can you remember the name of the episode where the disembodied head of Kathy Bates weeps as she watches footage from the civil rights movement? Probably not, but you can remember that happening, because it was completely nuts.
American Horror Story — along with HBO's Game of Thrones, which also debuted in 2011 — has helped spur a movement where an individual scene or moment is much more important than the overall episode, and those scenes sometimes behave like episodes, telling little stories in and of themselves. That extends to tonight's premiere, which is based more around setpieces (like an impromptu musical number) than any sort of internal storytelling logic.
Watch tonight's premiere, and it's impossible to tell what story Freak Show is going to tell this season. The moment-based storytelling structure works, so long as all involved have some idea of where they're heading. In Horror Story's best season, its second, that meant every story eventually returned to the idea of the main character escaping her unjust confinement to a mental hospital, which gave a unity to the season.
Freak Show, in contrast, seems assembled via refrigerator poetry. Scenes featuring a terrifying clown (John Carroll Lynch) awkwardly sit next to scenes about Lange's character trying to revive her freak show, which awkwardly sit next to scenes where the chief attractions of said show beg not to be called freaks, even as Murphy and Falchuk titter at the sound of the word. It's a mix that never feels cohesive or coherent.
3) AHS embraced the all-star cast
Movie stars had sniffed around TV before AHS — notably on FX's own The Shield and Damages (both starring Glenn Close) — but it was this series that truly made it safe for big stars to dabble in TV for a while. There are rumors, for instance, that Lange will leave the show after this season, but that shouldn't prove fatal to the series, because so much of what attracts viewers is the format itself. If you don't like one season's story, try out the next one.
True Detective and Fargo have stolen a lot of Horror Story's thunder in this department, but it's still impressive to consider how many Oscar winners and nominees have wandered through the show over the years. This season alone boasts two Oscar winners (Lange and Kathy Bates), an Oscar nominee (Angela Bassett), an Emmy winner (Michael Chiklis), and a couple of Emmy nominees (Paulson and Denis O'Hare) among its season regulars. It's a stacked cast, and if you are a fan of capital-A acting, then this is the show for you.
Putting that many great actors in one show inevitably means that the series needs to give them all something to do. And that means even more divergent plotlines that ultimately don't connect in any way, shape, or form. Bates, for instance, is playing a bearded lady with an accent that exists in a Venn diagram intersection between English and Swedish, and the show frequently just doesn't know what to do with her. The same goes for Bassett's character, who collects even more random bits of character development and comes out feeling like she was assembled via a series of darts thrown at transgressive adjectives.
As in the show's messy third season, this means that scenes quickly devolve into scenery chewing Olympics, and whatever story might be here is lost amid the tonal confusion. Maybe it will all gel, but even season three felt more coherent at this point.
American Horror Story might be messier than ever in the first two episodes of season four, but it remains perversely entertaining. The show's "throw spaghetti at the wall" approach to plotting means very few things stick, but those that do are unlike anything else on TV. Still, how long can this show succeed based on pure novelty? Its bag of tricks is going to start feeling tired any day now, and it's been superseded by many of the shows it inspired.
It's easy to ignore how influential this show is because, unlike The Sopranos, it's all too easy to write off as a gigantic mess. At this point, when you fire up American Horror Story, you know exactly what you're going to get — and that might be the thing that finally undoes it.
American Horror Story returns tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Dylan McDermott, star of American Horror Story Season One, is television's Nicolas Cage. Todd VanDerWerff explains in two minutes and many amazing clips: