Update 11/17/16: Now that Roanoke has concluded, this ranking has been updated to include the most recent installment. Enjoy!
Sometimes great, sometimes terrible, often somewhere in between, American Horror Story has been a spectacle on television for the past six years. Ryan Murphy’s brainchild is often criticized for its inconsistency and mishandling of what is arguably one of the best ensemble casts on television. Nevertheless, the series has a very devoted following (myself included) that sticks with the series through thick and thin, and it’s impossible to say that American Horror Story, for better or worse, isn’t at least trying to do something unique in the largely unoriginal landscape that television tends to be.
Now that the most recent season of American Horror Story has completed its run, let’s tide ourselves over until season seven begins by ranking the first six installments of the anthology series.
6. American Horror Story: Freak Show
Designed, essentially, as Jessica Lange’s swan song, American Horror Story: Freak Show was the first season of the show that I didn’t finish until well after it had ended (I stopped around episode six during its initial run on TV). On paper, Freak Show seemed perfect for the series’ anthology format: a cast full of “monsters” in 1950s America has almost unlimited potential for frights. The problem (or, well, one of the problems) with Freak Show, however, is that it largely abandoned the most important part of it’s title: horror. While the concept had been gradually dwindling as the series went on, Freak Show was much more concerned with its overall message (that “normal” people are the real freaks) than actually delivering to the niche that it seemed to be targeting. That’s not to say that the season was without horror (a particular moment involving face tattooing stands out as I’m writing this), but even the more supernatural elements of the season (such as Edward Mordrake) were downplayed from what they could be.
Freak Show also has the distinction of almost completely wasting its cast. While Sarah Paulson, Finn Wittrock, and, of course, Jessica Lange delivered standout performances (unwelcome musical numbers aside), none of the rest of the cast were used to their full potential. Even Michael Chiklis, one of the most highly-touted additions for Freak Show, was never used in that strong of a way.
That’s not to say that Freak Show was without its highlights, though. While not present for very long, Twisty the Clown was one of the most twisted (pun intended) characters to ever appear on American Horror Story, and the motivation behind the character is sympathetic enough to make you really question your own point of view. Paulson, Wittrock, and Lange, as mentioned above, also gave memorable performances, with Wittrock’s Dandy being the surprise of the season. The overall message of the season, too, was well-delivered, and it shows that there is a brightness to even the darkest stories. Additionally, the episode “Orphans,” telling more of Pepper’s tragic story, is one of the most emotionally engaging episodes of the series to-date.
5. American Horror Story: Asylum
After the fairly well-received first season (both critically and in the ratings) of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy revealed his plan to turn the new franchise into an anthology series. While some actors would return (albeit in much different roles), the setting, time period, and story would be completely different from the preceding season. While we know better now (after the reveals of both Freak Show and Hotel), it was also thought that no two seasons would be connected in any way other than superficially, so both FX and Murphy didn’t really know what to expect for the sophomore installment, titled Asylum.
From the get-go, it was clear that Asylum was a complete 180 from the first season, subsequently titled Murder House. While the focus of the first season was, put simply, a haunted house tale, Asylum attempted to explore a more real horror: that of the mind. Throughout the course of Asylum, viewers got to see a story unlike anything that came before it on television. Cleverly weaving together religion, psychology, racism, sexual identity, and, interestingly enough, extraterrestrials, Asylum succeeded in growing the audience from the year before. Additionally, fan-favorite actors from Murder House (including Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Evan Peters) became even more respected by viewers after delivering wonderfully engaging performances. The cast was one of the high points from the first season, but Asylum is the season that really established that American Horror Story would be an ensemble show.
The biggest fault with Asylum is mostly in the fact that it simply tried to do too much at once. One of the strengths of Murder House was its focus on one family in one house (and the spirits that surrounded them). Asylum, while primarily taking place in a single setting, began the American Horror Story trend of trying to tell too many individual stories without ever truly focusing in on any central aspect (a criticism that still applies today). Even by removing a single element from the story, Asylum had the potential to be so much more than it was. While not a bad season by any means (for me, though, a mediocre season of American Horror Story is still a ton more fun than most series), Asylum fans will always wonder what could have been with just a tad more focus.
4. American Horror Story: Coven
After the conclusion of Asylum left many in the audience worried if the franchise was already beginning to lose steam, information slowly began pouring in about the next effort by Ryan Murphy and Co. Everything announced sounded like a dream come true, from the casting of Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates as infamous real-life figures to the New Orleans-based witch “school” setting to the “evil glamour” description of the season’s style.
The story of Coven proved to be a more serious, darker undertaking than ever before, relying heavily on the real-life horrors of Madame Delphine LaLaurie and implications of Marie Laveau to create the backbone of the tale. “Shocks” became less important to the series than the cultivation of an underlying terror, and the season’s theme of oppression felt appropriate to the present-day. The cast absolutely shined during Coven, too, with the characters portrayed by Bassett, Bates, and the returning Jessica Lange chewing up their screentime with wonderfully beefy material. Newcomer Emma Roberts also got to have fun with her Mean Girls-esque “queen bee,” and her performance (in conjunction with the show’s setting) helped provide the inspiration for Ryan Murphy’s later series, Scream Queens (a series on which Roberts also earned a starring role).
As great as Coven was for most of its run, it began falling apart toward the end. The conclusion was satisfactory enough, but certain elements from the latter-third of the season (particularly the inclusion of Stevie Nicks and the penchant for bringing dead characters back to life) left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. Still, it’s hard to deny how fun Coven was to watch.
3. American Horror Story: Hotel
The biggest story coming into the most glamorous season of American Horror Story was Jessica Lange’s departure from the franchise. Lange had been the glue that held the show together through much of its run (and was one of the only positives to Freak Show in the eyes of many fans), and audiences were left wondering how she could be replaced. Ryan Murphy responded to this wonder with the casting of Lady Gaga as, essentially, the central figure to the series’ fifth installment, Hotel. Set largely in the present with flashbacks for characters’ pasts, Hotel favored style over substance, and, to me, in worked remarkably well.
The story of Hotel is nothing spectacular, blending in the supernatural with a murder mystery that is surrounded at all times by the vampiric Countess, played by Lady Gaga. While not particularly original, the strength in Hotel‘s story is its careful homages to beloved horror stories that came before it. In any given episode, sprinkles of The Shining or Se7en can be seen, and the whole design has a very Beetlejuice-esque style. Even the characters, for the most part, can be seen as homages to performances from the past, but that doesn’t take away from their ability to shine. The absolute highlight of the cast in Hotel is Evan Peters, and his role as James March is the best performance he’s given throughout his five seasons as part of the show. Lady Gaga also proved her doubters wrong, delivering an over-the-top performance that earned her a Golden Globe. The rest of the cast is just as good (for the most part), and fans quickly fell in love with Dennis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor. From bottom to top, it’s clear just how much care went into Hotel‘s production. Hotel also had the distinction of being the first season to fully embrace the idea that all American Horror Story seasons are connected, and the writers were able to blend in a lot of fun moments that added to this interconnectedness.
No season of American Horror Story can be perfect, though, and Hotel is no exception. Much of the second half of the season wasn’t able to live up to what came before it, and Wes Bentley’s John Lowe, one of my favorite stories in the beginning, wasn’t treated in the best way possible. The show did manage to find itself again in the end, though, and the finale was a perfect payoff to the eleven episodes of buildup that it received.
2. American Horror Story: Murder House
The season that started it all still reigns, with one new exception, supreme in the history of American Horror Story. For a long time, television horror had been a mostly dormant genre. Every few years would bring a new entry or two, but, for the most part, nothing really managed to stick with audiences. That all changed when FX took a gamble on their long-time collaborator Ryan Murphy’s idea for an anthology horror series.
Premiering close to Halloween, American Horror Story immediately developed a strong following. It was never a ratings “success” during its first season, subsequently titled Murder House after the announcement of season two, but it was clear that this series was something audiences were looking for. The cast was remarkable, with Friday Night Lights‘ Connie Britton and The Practice‘s Dylan McDermott in the lead roles, and Jessica Lange joined the cast for her first regular role on television. The season also featured many famous faces stopping by for guest appearances, such as House of Cards‘ Kate Mara and Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto. It seemed like a new famous actor was standing by at every turn, and it was obvious that everyone wanted to be involved in some way.
For the most part, the story of Murder House was pretty by-the-books and straightforward. A dysfunctional family moved into a haunted house and became even more dysfunctional. The house’s history was fun to explore, and the darkness surrounding the characters added plenty of depth to the performances. Murphy drew inspiration from Dark Shadows and Rosemary’s Baby when developing the plot, and this inspiration becomes clearer and clearer as the season went on. While more or less billed as an anthology, audiences really didn’t know for sure whether or not this story would continue into a second season. Ryan Murphy himself played with this idea in the media before revealing his overall plan after the season finale. Critics and viewers alike went wild for Jessica Lange’s turn as Constance Langdon, and this role propelled Lange into the hearts of many younger fans that may never have discovered her work otherwise.
Unlike some later seasons of American Horror Story, Murder House attempted from the very beginning to be a real horror story, and that effort is one of the reasons so many fans have stuck around for so long. While most seasons of American Horror Story have been good, only one later season or story has reached the bar set by the show’s initial outing.
1. American Horror Story: Roanoke
Every year, we hold onto hope that this will be the year American Horror Story reaches the standard set by its spectacular first season. While subsequent seasons have been sometimes great, sometimes bad, and often just good, we’ve never quite been able to touch the highs of Murder House.
That is, until now.
Every single aspect of American Horror Story: Roanoke broke the mold, and it all started with promotion for the season. Unlike the first five years of the series, we had absolutely no idea what the theme of season six would be until the very first episode finally aired, and this secrecy added a level of suspense and curiosity to the season that payed off big time. Even after the premiere, though, the audience was thrown for a loop time and time again as twists and turns defined the story in a way that American Horror Story, a series known for trying to twist things up, has never seen before.
While the story is nothing that unique narratively, it works so well and feels so different because of the structure. Playing with the very idea of how a television season should be planned out, we really get three unique seasons over the course of Roanoke‘s brisk ten-episode story. The brevity in episode count (and episode length, looking at you Hotel) also allows for the pacing of the season to feel better than ever, and this is the first time since, probably, Murder House that doesn’t suffer from a dragging mid-season before having to bring itself back around for a finale.
The acting in Roanoke is just as great as ever, and Ryan Murphy did a great job at using new faces among returning favorites. Sarah Paulson is the major highlight from AHS regulars, but Adina Porter stands out as the real star of the season. Her performance as Lee Harris should go down as one of the best in series history.
Additionally, Roanoke did a great job of tying itself back into the overall American Horror Story arc. Throughout the season, we learned a ton more about Freak Show‘s Mott Family, we got a strong connection to Murder House by calling back to Billie Dean Howard’s story of the Roanoke colony, we discovered how the witches from Coven got their start through the original Supreme, and we saw multiple references to Asylum after the return of Lana Winters to the scene. Roanoke accomplished everything that it needed to do for the overall series, and it did so while still delivering a phenomenal single-season story.
What do you think of our ranking of American Horror Story‘s seasons? How would yours be different? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below!