After months of misdirection and bubbling speculation, we finally have the theme for American Horror Story season 6: Roanoke.
Banking on the hope that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, Roanoke is based on the mysterious disappearance of more than 100 colonists in early America. Sir Walter Raleigh, the explorer who founded the first English settlement in the New World in 1585, sent a fresh batch of colonists to Roanoke Island (what is now North Carolina) two years later under the stewardship of John White. White dropped the colonists off and returned to England for supplies, but when he came back in 1590, there was no trace of anyone. The only clue left behind was the word "CROATOAN" carved in a fence post.
The Lost Colony is actually referenced in season one, episode 11 of American Horror Story when medium Billie Dean Howard (Sarah Paulson) explains the one successful attempt in history of a spirit banishing spell.
Clearly, Billie Dean was wrong.
Episode one of Roanoke introduces us to Shelby and Matt, an L.A. couple who move to North Carolina after becoming the victims of a brutal gang initiation that leaves Matt with a cracked eye socket and causes Shelby to miscarry. Thinking the remote, spacious farm house they bought for next-to-nothing on the auction block would be a fresh start, the two quickly realize why their new home was so cheap. Inhuman wails in the night, spectral images roaming the house, malicious forces ruining a little "me time" in the hot tub—it’s the freaky fodder we’ve grown accustomed to from show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, but what’s noticeably different this season is the format through which the story is told.
Roanoke mimics the structure of a documentary-style TV show, presumably called My Roanoke Nightmare: the real Shelby and Matt (Lily Rabe and André Holland) are telling their stories as confessionals with actors (Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.) doing the re-enactments.
The immediate red flag here is that the audience knows that Shelby and Matt survived their ordeal. By having them recount their nightmare as it’s being re-enacted dilutes the tension to a tepid "meh." Sure, things go bump in the night that will still make you jump, but the stakes have virtually disappeared when you have the victims giving you the play-by-play. Not to mention, if you were to delete all the confessional scenes, you would still know exactly what was going on during the re-enactments, which begs the question of why we need them at all? It would’ve been a more novel approach to the American Horror Story cannon if Roanoke went all-out with this new structure by making the confessionals more substantial to advancing the plot and crafting the reenactments to feel more like reenactments. American Horror Story never fails in delivery stunning cinematic visuals (the overhead shot of Matt walking outside to a dead pig on his doorstep; Shelby framed just right in a dingy windowpane as hail made of teeth pours down) but what paranormal activity docu-series do you know that has that level of production? Roanoke is basically like any other season of American Horror Story so far except with talking heads.
Granted, we’re only one episode in. There’s ample time for the plot to twist and jerk in a myriad of ways—but that’s the problem. As creative as Murphy and Falchuk are, the storylines they construct for American Horror Story often stumble into a gnarled mess of plots that are either half-baked or in desperate need of Ritalin, e.g. the near perfection of Asylum that was derailed by extraneous extraterrestrials, or Hotel’s convoluted gumbo of vampires AND serial killers wrecking mayhem discretely (for God's sake, pick ONE, Murphy.)
Roanoke’s story within a show within a reenactment feels like a turducken of terror—add Murphy and Falchuk’s penchant for dangling or overstuffed storylines and you’ve got yourself a hot-ass mess of WTF. But if the writers' room at American Horror Story has the same sort of clarity they had for Coven, we all might make it out of this hall of mirrors feeling satisfied.
By all counts, Coven is the strongest and most focused season in the American Horror Story anthology. The sorely missed Jessica Lange couldn’t have been any more in her element as the supreme witch. Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett gave us one TV’s best grudge matches in recent memory. The writing expertly skated that fine line between barbed wit and camp. Most importantly, though, the plot was cohesive. To be fair, there were some minor subplots that could’ve been done away with (Denis O'Hare’s dolls in the attic story raised questions no one asked). However, the more prominent sub-plots, like the race divide between witchcraft and voodoo was on-point with the season’s theme and managed to make relevant social commentary in the process.
So there’s hope for Roanoke yet. American Horror Story always has the right idea, but execution is where it can get dicey. That said, this new structure makes room for a host of opportunities: Things could get too real for the characters doing the re-enactment. We don’t hear the voice of a host or producer for this "show" yet, so who are Matt and Shelby doing their confessionals for, exactly? Or Roanoke could ape a play from The Sixth Sense playbook and make everyone ghosts. It’s hard to make any predictions in Murphy and Falchuk’s universe except for the fact that regardless of what happens it’s going to be entertaining.