REVIEW: ‘American Horror Stories” offers nostalgia and not much else

Boyce Rucker, Contributing Writer

In its 10-year run, the FX series “American Horror Story” has established a passionate fanbase and offered viewers engrossing entertainment through the use of the anthology format. It features a unique theme and setting for each season, cast members in revolving roles and darkly comedic elements. A two-part premiere of “American Horror Stories” debuted on July 14 and in contrast to the original series, “Stories” makes use of the anthology format in an episodic manner that’s comparable to Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” The structure is confining in terms of character development when applied to short episodes, as is the case in the premiere; however, character development is only one of many aspects that makes the episodes feel uninteresting.

Episode one, titled “Rubber (wo)Man Part One,” follows teenager Scarlett (Sierra McCormick) and her fathers (Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel) who move into the original series’ Murder House and begin renovating it. As they become aware of the house’s dark past, Scarlett is influenced by its darkness and takes a particular interest in the black rubber bodysuit that other Murder House characters have donned. When Scarlett gives in to her dark urges, the family finds themselves in danger. 

The premiere does well at creating an initial sense of unease and tension, but the effect devolves due to the writing and its reliance on shock factor. The first part recaptures the groundedness of “AHS: Murder House” and creates a somewhat moody atmosphere that can be attributed to the production design of the house’s interior, the ambient musical score and the dark cinematography. 

The tension created is then off-set by the laughable writing, which is at times hard to tell if it’s meant to be serious or not; this flaw especially comes to light in a scene where the fathers confront Scarlett about the porn she watches out of extreme concern that she may be a sadistic psychopath. While erotic and sexual themes are a large staple of the original series, the “Stories” has such an over-reliance on it to the point where it begins to feel forced. The two-hour length of the story doesn’t provide much to help us feel a connection with any of the characters, aside from maybe Scarlett just because she’s the protagonist. Everyone else comes off as uninteresting, or just terrible cliches. Furthermore, this isn’t helped by the time jump in the second episode where we’re introduced to a romantic interest that Scarlett met between the two episodes. 

Sierra McCormick in “American Horror Stories.” (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk/FX)

The good aspects of the premiere come from the nostalgia that viewers may have from the first season of “American Horror Story,” but like the following seasons after, “Stories” falls apart from writing that feels amateurish and too predictable.

The performances of the cast feel lackluster and very forgettable. Each cast member’s character is underwhelming and none of them are even remotely likable, because they come off as annoying or they lack character development. In particular, the character portrayed by Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael Jackson) in the second episode is portrayed as being tough and psychopathic in a sense, but she doesn’t come off as such when the delivery of her lines feels so unnatural and non-threatening. As the lead, Sierra McCormick’s performance isn’t memorable or significant due to the writing of her character, where she doesn’t have any nuance or lasting interest. The uniqueness and quality of the ensemble cast is often one of the more interesting parts of the main series, which is an element that’s terribly lacking in the spin-off’s premiere. 

In the past, “American Horror Story” has always been able to find great footing in its production design. While there isn’t an outlandish or original set like those in “AHS: Freak Show” or “AHS: Asylum,” the reuse of Murder House’s interior does well in creating a sense of moodiness in the episodes. Longtime fans can also find satisfaction in the return of the show’s original theme music for the intro.

While the premiere of “American Horror Stories” isn’t as interesting or exciting as its predecessors, that’s not to say that the upcoming episodes won’t show an increase in quality, as show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have demonstrated their writing capabilities in FX shows like “American Crime Story” and “Nip/Tuck.” If anything, the premiere can be considered a test run for the structure of the spin-off series. As the next episodes of the season will each be standalone stories with their own unique qualities, one can hope to see improvement in the utilization of the episodic anthology format.