American Horror Story: 1984 (FX)
Written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Tim Minear, James Wong, Jay Beattie, Dan Dworkin, John J. Gray, Adam Penn, and Crystal Lieu
Directed by Bradley Buecker, John J. Gray, Mary Wigmore, Jennifer Lynch, Gwyenth Horder-Payton, Loni Peristere, and Liz Friedlander
Every year I brace myself for the new season of American Horror Story. These days the feelings associated with this event are annoyance and disappointment. 1984 proved to be no exception to the norm. Once again, Ryan Murphy gave us a mercifully shortened season (nine episodes) that felt so ill-planned and sloppy it made me question why he still even makes this show. Apparently, his preferred method for AHS is to throw a bunch of crap at the wall, pull in actors who he can get for a couple of days without thought to their actual characters, and see if anything works. Regardless of the quality, he releases it on television to the public.
1984 billed itself as Murphy’s take on slasher flicks of the decade. It started off with a group of horny twentysomethings traveling to a summer camp in the hills, the site of a massacre a decade earlier. Camp Redwood was reopening under the control of Margaret Booth, the only survivor of the killer Mr. Jingles. She wanted to make the camp into a place that wasn’t feared but loved by the children who attended. Then the Night Stalker showed up, and he had Devil powers, and the entire season turned into a rural version of Murder House. As I said, so much gets thrown at the wall, and when you step back, you realize there’s no overarching plan at work.
The Night Stalker is shown to be a disciple of Satan and is brought back from the dead through the powers of the dark lord. So there must be some higher purpose to Richard Ramirez, right? Not really. He just sort of kills some people and really likes Bily Idol. Margaret Booth is also shown to be a secret devil worshipper early in the season. This fact is why she and Ramirez end up working together. And then…after the halfway mark, her love of Satan is never mentioned again. It was convenient to keep her from getting murdered, but that seemed to be the only reason the writers put it in the episode.
There is a moment in the middle of the season where the show suddenly establishes that everyone who dies on the grounds of Camp Redwood has their spirit trapped there, becoming a ghost. Yet, from the first episode of the season, we are continually visited by the ghost of a counselor who died just outside the camp on the road. They even emphasize in the final episode that if you die outside the camp, then you don’t stay in this world. One reason horror like this could work is by having consistent rules, not even laid out through exposition but just shown to the audience. When there is this sort of sloppiness in the worldbuilding, then our suspension of disbelief collapses, and it’s hard to care about what happens to the characters.
Speaking of characters, this has to be one of the most broadly written casts the show has ever had. Every character is one-note. Our “final girl” Brooke is a total void of personality. The villains have one thing they do over and over and are never given nuance or complexity. Mr. Jingles, played by the wonderful John Carroll Lynch, is about the only redeemable aspect of the whole affair. And they manage to ruin his storyline with an eleventh-hour plot reveal that he’s been coming to the camp since he was a child and experienced tragedy. None of that scans with what we know about the character up until that point, he didn’t become homicidal because of these tragedies, and this is so obviously shoehorned into the season last minute.
I genuinely love Murder House and Asylum, and I enjoy many of the earlier seasons of the show. But something happened around the time of Hotel that AHS just got put on the backburner when it came to quality control. I know Ryan Murphy is the showrunner for an ever-increasing number of programs, and I think this show may just be getting the short end of the stick at this point. He has talented people in his cast, but the slapdash manner in which the series is put together is so apparent. I find myself asking why I keep watching at this point, and I think it is the nostalgia of those fantastic early seasons, hoping that somehow it can return to its former glory.