'American Horror Story' Season 6: TV Review

It's a quiet start by 'American Horror Story' standards.

'My Roanoke Nightmare' gets a name and a theme and pairs Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a new context.

If you don't want to know anything about the sixth season of FX's American Horror Story, you should probably stop reading this review right here. If you've kept in the dark this far, why would you be reading a review anyway? Geez.

For reasons that still aren't exactly clear to me, Ryan Murphy went out of his way to keep this AHS installment, the show's sixth, shrouded in secrecy. In previous years, Murphy and his team announced the season's subtitle and the cast and sometimes even characters and the kernel of a plotline ahead of time. Trailers were usually cryptic and disturbing, but they also gave some conceptual sense of the season and, in keeping with standard protocol, FX usually released at least an episode or two to critics in advance, though sometimes only days before the premiere. But this season, we didn't know the subtitle or anything about the plot; we knew, mostly, the actors we could expect, as they're part of the normal AHS ensemble; and the teasers, which I've mostly avoided, sound like they were a mixture of disturbing nonsense or misdirection or hints so broad only a few obsessive prognosticators guessed anywhere in the general vicinity. No screeners were sent out, since almost anything critics could have written would have constituted a spoiler.

After all of that secrecy, Wednesday night's premiere quickly rushed to announce that this American Horror Story theme is "Brought to You by Mercedes-Benz." Or was that intro by Murphy not actually a part of the show's overall mythology now?


It actually appears that the subtitle for the new season is My Roanoke Nightmare, and I'm told some fans had predicted at least the "Roanoke" part of things. And, formatwise, the season seems to be a takeoff on re-enactment-driven true-crime/true-horror shows, a mix between the sort of thing you might watch on ID and the stuff Syfy airs. Early in the episode, there was some Twitter buzz that it might turn out that Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk, credited with launching the new anthology model of limited series, might be doing an anthology season in which each episode would focus on a different regional haunting or disturbance, letting Sarah Paulson presumably play 10 different parts in a season, which is probably Murphy's greatest dream. As the first episode ended very much in what looks like the early going of this circumstance, it appears that this is the story we're following, at least until it ceases to be.

And what is that story? Well, lovey-dovey couple Shelby (Lily Rabe as a talking head, Paulson in the re-enactments) and Matt (Andre Holland as a talking head and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the re-enactments) leave Los Angeles after a random act of violence and take up residence in a scary, but architecturally evocative, farmhouse in rural North Carolina. Now, I'd say that outbidding a bunch of scary, inbred hillbillies for a clearly haunted farmhouse in the middle of the woods with no signs of nearby civilization is a bad idea, and you'd probably say the same, and that's before you get into things like how scary, inbred hillbillies might handle an interracial couple and the fact that Matt is a traveling salesman, which means lots of alone time for Shelby. But Matt and Shelby, who apparently haven't watched Straw Dogs recently, feel differently. In no time, horror begins to intrude in various forms, including cloaked intruders, a dead pig, a video — yes, freaking VHS — featuring a pig-headed man and other stuff having nothing to do with pigs but having a lot to do with little twig bundles that come across as mighty Blair Witch-y.

It was only in July that it was revealed that the movie formerly titled The Woods was actually a Blair Witch sequel, and I can't imagine for sure what Murphy's reaction must've been to that news. Was it a string of expletives and reassurance that his version would at least have a cast of A-listers? Was it amusement because the Blair Witch-y aspects of My Roanoke Nightmare are a fake out that will only be amplified by renewed prominence for the film franchise? During the AHS premiere, when the show cut almost directly from Shelby and sister-in-law Lee (Adina Porter as a talking head, Angela Bassett in the re-enactments) discovering the strung-up twig men to a Blair Witch trailer, it was hard to tell the difference, but that probably means that a major zig or zag is on its way.

Directed by Bradley Buecker, this premiere was easily the most restrained AHS season opener … perhaps ever? It was heavy on shaky-cam jump scares and disarming wandering in dark places, but everything in the episode felt quiet enough that I'm guessing it was a trap. It's normally been Murphy and Falchuk's MO to lay on the weirdness so aggressively in opening installments that only the most passionate devotees are able to make it through to the end. American Horror Story has been an endurance competition, but one that always aspired to eliminate the weak early. But if you tuned in for the start of My Roanoke Nightmare, chances are good that you'll continue with it because it was a lot of ground-laying, but almost none of the excess that the show is known for. How restrained was Wednesday's premiere? It was scheduled for a one-hour time slot, and it didn't even fill that hour.

We're going to have to wait, I guess, and see Murphy and Falchuk play with the format because you can already sense they're itching to mess with our expectations. For example, you'd have to be a babe in the woods to believe that, just because we're watching Shelby and Matt tell their story, that it means that they survive whatever is coming. And are Rabe, Holland and Porter going to be only talking heads for the entire season, or is the device going to turn in on itself as well? I was already vaguely astounded that when we saw the drug-and-violence-fueled collapse of Lee's police career, we didn't get a third actress to play the role for the flashback within the re-enactment. If you're tweaking the viewers and the conventions of the genre, go nuts.

Beyond the atmospheric setup, My Roanoke Nightmare was worth watching just for the initial casting fun, always an AHS staple. The sheer giddiness of figuring out that Paulson was playing the re-enactment version of Rabe was great, but then realizing that we were going to get to enjoy Marcia Clark making out with O.J. Simpson was almost over-the-top joy. Bassett coming in from almost a different show, a Pam Grier sort of badass cop who says things like, "He was a serial rapist, a real asshole. I hate assholes," was also fun, as were the first appearances of a pair of franchise regulars at the end of the episode. The acting credits, held to the end of the episode as well, hint that many more regulars are on their way.

So was the premiere of My Roanoke Nightmare the start of a mature and understated season of American Horror Story? Will the format and the "Based on a true story" intro put a cap on the madcap exploitation that fans love? Ha. I doubt that. Murphy has multiple outlets now for when he wants to be "restrained" and "grown-up," so nuttiness is coming.

When you're the type of show prone to kicking off a season with the introduction of a hairless mole man with a killer dildo, it's possible that the most provocative thing you can do to start a chapter is eschewing mole men, dildos and, in fact, killing altogether for a full week. The American Horror Story franchise has been and done many things, but it's never offered such a false sense of security, so this subdued start may be the scariest promise of all. It's the most curious I've been about future installments in a long time, which means next week's episode will be 75 minutes of rubber men, masturbating Dylan McDermott, surgery-performing Nazis and clowns.

Cast: Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson, Andre Holland, Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett, Adina Porter, Wes Bentley and Kathy Bates … so far
Creators: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk

Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., ET/PT on FX.