The seventh season of everyone’s favorite hot mess, American Horror Story, premieres on FX tonight. This batch of episodes (subtitled Cult) puts a political spin on the proceedings. And, while they could technically just replay this year’s inauguration video for each episode, it seems this season focuses on Sarah Paulson’s fear of clowns and Evan Peters’ blue-haired screaming fits. In preparation of tonight’s inaugural episode, let’s take a look back at all six seasons so far from best to worst.
6. FREAK SHOW (Season 4)
Last and definitely least is American Horror Story: Freak Show. Right from the get-go, this season was one big eye roll. It’s very basis is a theme not unfamiliar in Murphy’s cannon; a group of outsiders fighting against bigotry and hate. But here he places the protagonists in the most obvious setting possible: an actual freak show. Effectively turning the subtext of his previous stories into capital-t Text, and shoving it down our throats while he’s at it. Get it?? They’re actual freaks!! It’s as if he missed the screenwriting class that teaches you the “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling.
The resulting season is cringe-inducingly on the nose. It has exactly one redeeming quality, having a villain who’s genuinely terrifying. Twisty the Clown still haunts my nightmares, but then so does Kathy Bates’ god awful Minnesota accent. Add to that some obnoxiously anachronistic musical numbers performed by Lange with a phony German accent, and you have what’s surely the worst season in a largely hit-or-miss series.
5. HOTEL (Season 5)
After Freak Show, series highlight Jessica Lange opted out of the show. American Horror Story: Hotel was the first one without her, and a Lange lost is a Gaga gained. Inviting the certified queen of all things weird, Lady Gaga, into the AHS universe was perhaps the most inspired bit of casting the show has had. Gaga, while not amazing, brought a calm assuredness to her performance that bagged her a Golden Globe. What’s unfortunate about this season is you aren’t really given a reason to care about anything that’s happening. There’s no real through-line here, it’s just about this weird hotel run by this weird woman who calls herself ‘The Countess‘ who’s kind of a vampire and also collects children. Wes Bentley plays a detective who checks in to the hotel in hopes of investigating a murder or something. There’s also a killer afoot who kills people according to the Ten Commandments for some reason.
In typical Murphy fashion, it’s a bunch of puzzle pieces that were all taken from completely different puzzles. The end result is as incoherent as it sounds. One hidden gem however is Evan Peters’ gonzo performance as the hotel’s founder James Patrick Marsh, who terrorized guests in his torture chamber on the property in the 1920s. Peters even adopts a ‘1920s accent’ (if that’s even a thing), and somehow manages to make it sound completely natural. So that’s a plus.
4. COVEN (Season 3)
Asylum (which I’ll get to in a moment), while well-regarded by most, was largely criticized for being ‘too dark’. In retaliation, Ryan Murphy delivered one of the lightest, most ridiculous seasons of the series with American Horror Story: Coven. The humor is in abundance, but most of it is far too campy to ever really be funny. Despite the delightful inclusion of Stevie Nicks (who was actually accused of being a witch in Fleetwood Mac’s heyday), even that cameo was inconsequential.
In fact, the only thing keeping this season in fourth place is the addition of Angela Bassett, who chews the scenery like she’s ripping into a juicy steak. If her death glare doesn’t kill you, surely the amount of verbal acid she spits will. Nobody knows how to deliver a cutting insult quite like Bassett, and it’s one of the only things making this season worth checking out. But she’s the rose in a field full of thorns. Including but not limited to: zombies, racism, and Precious‘ Gabourey Sidibe having sex with a minotaur…
3. ASYLUM (Season 2)
The second season is a bit of a reversal of the typical AHS formula. The kitchen-sink approach is employed from the get-go here, toning down as it goes along. There’s a Nazi doctor, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and of course the ill-advised subplot of alien abduction. American Horror Story: Asylum begins as a complete mess with glimmers of promise, and ends on a pleasingly suspenseful and satisfying note.
Aside from bringing Lange to the forefront as the HBIC (Head-Bitch-In-Charge) of the titular institute, we’re also treated to a wonderfully zany performance by Lily Rabe as the repressed nun, and a fun twist that casts Zachary Quinto in a sinister new light. By the time Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters finds herself unwittingly trapped in Bloody Face‘s lair, the season is finally finding its footing. The problem is, that’s in the third-to-last episode.
2. ROANOKE (Season 6)
The most recent season also proved to be one of the most divisive. The show’s schtick was beginning to grow quite stale, with many die-hard fans considering jumping ship. Love it or hate it, American Horror Story: Roanoke injected the series with something it was in dire need of: a fresh new storytelling structure. [Spoilers start here, folks] By dividing the season into two halves, Ryan Murphy gave the show something it’s been lacking since season one, and that’s genuine intrigue. The marketing was our first hint that we were in for a change, with the plot and even the subtitle a total secret until it premiered.
It was revealed the season was presented in the style of a true crime docu-series titled “My Roanoke Nightmare“, complete with “dramatic reenactments” of the strange events that occurred after a couple move to a creepy house in North Carolina. Interesting enough, until you realize that all the ‘real’ versions of the characters are still alive and telling the cameras their version of the story, thus dispelling most of the suspense. Things progressed quite quickly, with the story even coming to an apparent conclusion by the end of the fifth episode.
So what now, you ask? Well, it turns out the second half of the season follows the producers of “My Roanoke Nightmare” starting a new reality show. In it, they plan to put the real people and their reenactment counterparts in the same house together with hidden cameras, Big Brother style. Not only did this invigorate the formula, it reached peak excitement when the end of the sixth episode revealed that every single castmember except for one was killed over the course of filming. And what we’re about to watch is the ‘found footage’ of what transpired. F*ck me up, Ryan Murphy. This is storytelling experimentation the likes of which we rarely see on television. Save for a little noticeable lack of focus toward the end, Roanoke proved to be the incredibly necessary slap in the face to those of us being lulled to sleep by the typical AHS formula.
1. MURDER HOUSE (Season 1)
A clear plot and sense of structure has rarely been AHS‘s strong suit, but it’s part of what makes the first season the undisputed champion. Following some unsavory marital struggles (he’s a cheating jerk who wears fedoras), the Harmon family uproot their lives in Boston and seek a fresh start in sunny California. And wouldn’t ya know it, turns out the house is haunted by literally everyone who has ever died there. Ugh, realtors, amiright? Notable bright spots include a uniquely creepy (and rubbery) villain, Jessica Lange as the unhinged nosy neighbor, and something called “the infantata“. What follows is a season full of memorable moments, but even the best season isn’t without its faults.
As it progresses, it starts to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, seeing what sticks. And while it’s a defense mechanism that’s present in every season, it’s perhaps employed least offensively in this one. And while we definitely didn’t need an almost-whole episode devoted to the Black Dahlia, we most certainly needed a scene with Connie Britton eating gourmet brains. Ryan Murphy giveth and Ryan Murphy taketh away.
So where will season seven land on the ranking? Only time will tell. American Horror Story: Cult premieres tonight, 9/5 on FX at 10pm.