Regardless of what you thought about the show’s quality, pretty much everybody who watched American Horror Story from beginning to end could agree on one thing: It burned through story like only a Ryan Murphy show can. (Season one spoilers follow.)
Indeed, the season finale seemed to mostly wrap up the story of the show’s central family, the Harmons, all of whom are now dead and just kind of hanging out in Murder House. The only potential cliffhanger around was Jessica Lange’s Constance apparently caring for her grandson, the Antichrist, and that seemed almost certain to turn into a dull Omen ripoff.
(Spoilers over for rest of article.) Considering that Ryan Murphy shows almost always open with story-heavy first seasons, then gradually succumb to incoherence in seasons two and three, and considering that this show was already occasionally incoherent, things seemed sort of disastrous.
Instead, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk are doing something different. They’re inventing something that’s essentially a new model for television: a season-long anthology series, creating something that will occupy a space between traditional miniseries and long-form serialized dramas. As stated in a conference call Murphy participated in with FX president John Landgraf, each season will tell a single story with new characters, a new setting, and a new set of “horrors.” Some of the actors may return as new characters, but a whole new cast will be recruited most years. The only thing uniting each season of the show will be the idea of “American horror.”
We can give Murphy a hard time here at The A.V. Club, so let’s say this upfront: This is a pretty bold, risky idea, and both the creators and FX are to be commended for giving it a shot. It’s not exactly unprecedented, though it’s never been tried quite like this. Shows like Murder One or 24 or Damages all featured new stories each season, but they also had recurring characters to carry over from one year to the next. The U.K. high school drama Skins and Friday Night Lights have brought in new casts, but never as abruptly as this show will. And the A&E mystery series Nero Wolfe used the idea of actors returning as different characters, but, again, had its own recurring players from season to season.
From FX’s standpoint, in particular, this is a big risk. The show is the biggest first-season hit of any show in FX’s history, and it’s tied with Falling Skies for the biggest new cable series of the year among adults 18-49. (FX publicity head John Solberg expects the show to pull ahead of Falling Skies when all is said and done, thanks to big numbers for the finale, which over 5 million tuned into over the course of the night. Falling Skies debuted big and fell off. Horror Story debuted well then grew.) If season two comes on and the Harmons and Constance aren’t featured again—and they won’t be, Murphy confirmed, nor will we ever see their particular story again—fans of the first season could tune out in droves. But if the move works, FX has a show that could, theoretically, run forever, more of a brand name than a series, with each season providing a new horror tale that wraps up in 13 episodes.
Murphy, understandably, was coy about what season two would be about. He said news of which actors would make up the cast for season two, as well as a few nuggets about the season’s storyline, will be out sometime in February, most likely, though he did say the show would continue to embrace its fascination with American crimes of the past and folklore. Early in the call, he said each season would explore a new “haunting,” but he later suggested there were many types of horror stories, and the show might do something about serial killers, something that incorporates true crime stories, or something set in a prison. Not every season will be people dealing with a new haunted house, he said, and he added that would become clear once information about season two comes out. In addition, Murphy was excited about the idea that this model could provide a chance for TV-curious film actors to try out a season of TV without making a larger commitment. (Left unsaid here was the obvious subtext that Gwyneth Paltrow will inevitably star in a season of this show.) Murphy also said the same writing staff will come back but will have more time to work out the season's story than they did for season one, which had a much tighter timetable. (Indeed, the writers are hashing out story ideas right now.)
On just the pure level of being interested in TV as a medium, this is fairly exciting. It’s something that’s never been tried, and if it works, it opens up the format in some interesting new ways. (It’s not hard to thrill at the idea of what Joss Whedon might do with a season-long sci-fi anthology or what David Simon might do with a season-long docudrama anthology.) Even if it doesn’t work, it’s at least something different, and it’s the sort of new idea that seems so obvious once you’ve heard it that it’s surprising it’s never happened. (Even Landgraf seemed sort of surprised.) As Landgraf said, cable could never have the ad budget to support a true anthology show in the current day and age—since each episode would require so much promotion out of the gate in season one until the brand-name had taken hold. This theoretically provides a way to have the strengths of a miniseries and the strengths of a longer-form narrative. It’s fascinating, and it automatically makes us more interested in season two of the show than we were last night.