The Big Picture
- American Horror Stories lacks the gravitas and depth of its predecessor due to its shorter run time and rushed conclusions.
- The show presents thought-provoking and genuinely scary stories, but fails to fully capitalize on their potential.
- The time constraints of the episodes prevent the stories from delivering satisfying endings.
American Horror Story, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, is a behemoth of the horror genre that has dominated the airwaves and spawned nightmares for more than 10 years. Known for its ingenious plots and dreadful twists, the show has become known for blending genres and distinct plot ideas into seasons that creatively frighten anyone who watches. With such a scarily good reputation, it was almost inevitable that a spin-off would one day arrive to extend the brand. American Horror Stories (clock the -ies) premiered in 2021 for FX on Hulu and promised to package the multi-episode scares of the original show’s full seasons into less than one-hour segments. Yet despite its birth from an established and popular show, American Horror Stories consistently fails to carry the gravitas of its predecessor. Each episode follows a routine flow: It starts with a person in a unique situation. They are presented with an inciting issue. They struggle with it, and, because of the show’s nature, they usually complete this struggle by facing some horrifying end. Yet, while the situations and issues faced by each episode’s main characters are interesting, American Horror Stories is missing something that proved integral to the original show: time.
While all of the series’ seasons tell their stories to varying success, the ones released for the show’s third season exemplify the issues that have kept the series from reaching the spine-tingling heights of the original. Advertised as a part of this year’s Huluween event, these four episodes promised intense fear, and, while they did deliver some great scares, they mostly baited viewers into watching them until the end, only to be disappointed by a quartet of unsatisfactory climaxes. This is not to say that the plots are boring — in fact, just the opposite. One of the core issues with the series’ time restraints is that they actually do set up thought-provoking stories with large capacities to scare. And while they can be creepy, far too often audience members are led to a climax that fails to capitalize off of the interesting points before it and lacks the fulfillment of other anthology shows in the genre.
American Horror Stories
An anthology series of stand-alone episodes delving into horror myths, legends and lore.
- Main Genre
- Streaming Service(s)
These ‘American Horror Stories’ Have a Fatal Flaw
Season 3’s current episodes are markedly unique and very relevant to current times. From the horrors of AI to the disgusting standards set by the fashion industry, the series’ exploration of these topics showcases the potential it has to tell truly unsettling stories. And while not as bombastic as the scares of the original show, they do have unnerving moments that could deeply disturb those who watch. This is where the show thrives. It offers plots that would make amazing first episodes of full American Horror Story seasons that pose questions and offer moments that, if given the proper time and care, could evolve into something deliciously grotesque. But more often than not, only about half of these points are addressed come the episodes’ final minutes. And for the half that does get the attention they need, it rarely lives up to the expectation the episode sets for them.
While spoilers are rarely acceptable, breaking down any of the current season’s episodes highlights the flaws that resonate throughout the show’s entirety. Episode 2 of the season, “Daphne,” focuses on Reid Scott’s (Veep) character, Will, facing quarantine under a new pandemic rocking the world. His only companion is the AI personal assistant Daphne (voiced by Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the show’s biggest casting gets). The electronic Daphne begins to fall in love with Will, and while this kind of story is quite common, the episode veers away from typical fare by showing that Will isn’t entirely opposed to an online girlfriend. This is an amazing subversion, a take on Her by Spike Jonze with the same potential for electronic love fused with a creepy look at what murder in the modern age could look like. And when the episode crescendos with Will being arrested for various crimes the AI committed in his name, complete with videos of him perpetuating each act, you prepare for another unsettling twist. The episode made a point to show that Daphne can easily create realistic videos of people (commonly referred to as “deep-fakes”), and Will wasn’t shown to have the coding prowess necessary for some of the charges. Would the story make you gasp as you finally realize the small details sprinkled throughout foreshadowed how Daphne would ultimately orchestrate the downfall of the man she claimed to love? That was one of the countless finishes the episode could have taken to properly wrap up the story while honoring its own writing, but it doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t bite any of the pre-established hooks, instead going for an end in which the audience is supposed to believe Will’s fractured mind conjured a companion to displace responsibility for his crimes onto. While a relatively creepy conclusion, it’s an easy one that has been seen before and doesn’t really mesh with the narrative that led up to it.
‘American Horror Story’ Doesn’t Rush to Its Finish
That’s a great way of summarizing the climaxes of most American Horror Stories episodes: They’re easy. While most attempt to end on a creepy cliffhanger, they almost always get there by simplifying the complex story being told into a quick (and bloody) wrap-up (often leaving many more frustrating questions than answers). This is particularly damaging to the series when it’s based on a larger show lauded for its ability to present innovative stories whose payoff, while not always successful, addresses the complex plotline that led up to it. Anthology horror shows are not inherently flawed because of their format; there are many examples of short-form fears that may face missteps but can package their tales into succinct yet properly plotted and sufficiently chilling episodes. Whether due to nervousness or overconfidence, American Horror Stories’ refusal to adapt to the anthology setup highlights how unsuccessful the series is at telling complete stories within its time limit.
Despite missing the length of the original show, American Horror Stories has proven itself capable of presenting ideas and stories that are genuinely frightening and interesting. It views what is occurring in society and twists these events into their ultimate, most horrifying possibility. Yet while it thrives in this sense, it’s these moments of ingenuity that make the pitfalls of the show so much more glaring. Presenting such interesting stories but lacking the payoff takes away the audience’s chance at being awestruck by something they’ve invested their time and thought into. This is due in large part to the time constraints, the vehicle these episodes being told through lacking the literal time to bring these stories to a climax that touches on each of their plot points in a horrifying and gratifying way. But until American Horror Stories learns to carry the spirit of its original while adapting to its new format, odds are it will always miss the complex elements of enthralling horror and thought-out endings that made the earlier show so great.
American Horror Stories is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S.
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