American Horror Story: Hotel was, in some respects, a huge success. The premiere was the anthology series’ most-watched episode with 5.81 million viewers; Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe for her performance as the Countess; and Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates are among the show’s seven Emmy nominees. But that’s not the whole story. After the record-breaking premiere, Hotel sunk to record low ratings, with only 2.24 million tuning into the finale. The season as a whole was also the show’s least warmly received — Hotel has a 64% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes; no other installment is below 74%.
So, what happened?
The announcement that Lady Gaga joined the cast — which included mainstays Paulson, Bates, Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare, and Angela Bassett — was an exciting treat. But the sugar high went away midway through the season, at which point fans began to realize, oh yeah, this is just like every other season. Hotel ran into the familiar patterns that made Coven and Freak Show briefly thrilling, but too often tedious. The scene-to-scene disjointedness; the tonal inconsistencies; the lack of horror — Lady Gaga is great, and everyone looked amazing (a Ryan Murphy trademark), but even she can’t make up for subpar scripts. But I kept tuning in, just like I have every season since Murder House, because Murphy and his creative team would occasionally come up with something truly clever, and I’d be roped into watching for another week. I was, however, all set to quit the show for good — one American story is enough for me — until I saw those first teasers. Just when I thought I was out, a dangling knife over a baby’s crib pulls me back in.
American Horror Story season six premieres next week, on September 14, but no theme has been announced yet. In fact, we know next to nothing about the season, which is exactly the point. “Every year, we lay out the themes and the new genre Ryan [Murphy] is going to be approaching,” FX CEO John Landgraf said, but “we thought it’d be fun to keep it a mystery, so we are.” He added, “There are many more trailers than you’ve actually seen for hypothetical seasons of American Horror Story — different genres, different places. One of them is accurate; the others are all misdirects.” There have been something like 97,308 teasers so far — including mist monsters, creepy children, and alien abductions — but as Landgraf pointed out, only one means anything. It’s impossible to know which promo, though, because there’s nothing to work from. It’s kind of like what’s happening on Game of Thrones, now that the show has passed the books, except even more mysterious. Eventually there’s going to be a trailer for Thrones‘ seventh season with footage from the forthcoming episodes — it’s obviously hard to tell what it means, removed from context, but you can still piece something together. American Horror Story wants you to go into season six trailer-less.
In an era of leaks, and watching the first five minutes of a premiere on Twitter, and fan theories, and months of hype, there’s something refreshing about American Horror Story‘s enigmatic game plan. FX seems content on releasing daily teasers, and very little else, until the 14th. That Gabbo-like mystery should do wonders for the premiere’s ratings (whether the majority of the audience sticks around for the rest remains to be seen). I know I’ll be watching. It’s a smart strategy, the marketing equivalent of not showing the monster until well into the movie. (What if the theme is Cloverfield?)
But — here’s the tricky part — the reveal needs to live up to expectations.
If American Horror Story had gone ahead and named the theme two months ago, as per usual, the same fans who always watched (and some added Lady Gaga diehards) would continue watching; by playing it coy, the show is hoping to rope in curious newcomers and jaded former-spectators with this grand mystery. If the secret theme is a dud, though, there’s a good chance viewers will feel betrayed, like they were promised something American Horror Story couldn’t possibly live up to. It’s a risk, but it could also be a reward for us putting up with screaming spiders. Please don’t let that be the theme.
(One of the reasons why I think Netflix’s Stranger Things became such a huge hit is because no one had any assumptions on what kind of show it was. In fact, no one was talking about it at all before the premiere. Stranger Things caught everyone off guard, and people like feeling surprised. American Horror Story isn’t a direct analogy — the show isn’t catching anyone off guard in season six — but I think it’s going for that same unexpected excitement.)
Ryan Murphy and FX are either super confident in American Horror Story season six (it’s so good, we don’t have to tell you anything), or not at all (the reason there’s no theme is because… there’s no theme). Or maybe there is no season, and we’re just going to keep getting creepy 10-second teasers until we’re eventually driven mad with anticipation. That’s a scarier thought than any hotel or asylum. Whatever the case, I’ll be watching. My dedication to a show that confuses me as often as it delights me? That’s the real mystery.