Little Monster and big television producer Ryan Murphy is known for many things: excessive camp, Dutch angles, fourth-wall-exploding stunt-casting. Missing from that list? Discretion. Which makes the clever, canny, mysterious rollout for the sixth season of his American Horror Story downright remarkable.
The man who once creatively gave a school shooting–focused episode of his teen dramedy the title “Shooting Star” isn’t prone to Matt Weiner–level secrecy or the self-discipline required to maintain it. This is the showrunner, after all, who accidentally stumbled on prestige TV’s new format of choice by simply giving up on sustaining a show premise past the dozen-episode mark. And that was just how American Horror Story, the seasonal anthology that launched a thousand limited-series loophole Emmys, started. Since then, we’ve had a nonstop barrage of stunt castings, stunt pastiches, and stunt incoherent feminist metaphors, all announced before a single episode of the each subtitled, aggressively themed season even aired. No wonder everything since Asylum’s burned through all its best material by week five! Murphy essentially invented his way out of some TV’s biggest narrative challenges, only to invent new ones in their place.
Think back to what we knew this time last year, when the fifth season had yet to unfurl its Overlook-print carpet to the general public. It would be called Hotel, a fact we learned mere weeks after the Freak Show finale and seven months before the premiere. Lady Gaga would be starring, an announcement that instantly fulfilled its intended purpose of generating enough publicity to fill the gaping black hole left by Jessica Lange, who had headlined the first four seasons. And the Murphy Repertory Company would be joined by a set of identical quintuplets. And also Naomi Campbell. Those were just the highlights; as the season drew closer, character reveals and subplots (read: reverse-engineered celebrity cameos) started flowing like the rosé at Lange’s “I’m out of here just in time for a pop star’s EGOT run” party.
In retrospect, if the media’s able to piece together a more or less complete outline of the season two months out, it doesn’t bode well for your entry in a genre driven by suspense and/or shock value. But that’s the price of doing business with Ryan Murphy. To get Kathy Bates’s disembodied head watching Roots, you have to deal with the total lack of restraint that creates those conditions, or else give up the internet for fear of spoilers.
At least that’s what we thought! Because American Horror Story ?6 — that’s literally what it’s called, at least for now — starts Wednesday night, and we know precisely jack about it. I’ve never felt so free.
Well, we don’t know nothing. Gaga’s in it, and the season’s at least partially set at the so-called “Lost Colony” of Roanoke in the 16th century. But we didn’t get that from FX, or even Murphy himself. We found out because someone sent creepshots of the California set to TMZ. When was the last time there was enough mystery around a Ryan Murphy show to warrant a TMZ leak? Even the ending of his highest-profile project in years got spoiled … by history, but still.
Instead, the marketing campaign leading up to Wednesday’s premiere has been all sorts of antonyms for “Murphyesque”: Coy! Evasive! And … meticulous?!?! FX hasn’t released any advance screeners to critics, which is fine, but they also haven’t put out a proper trailer, either — just a compilation of teasers that deliberately contradict each other. One is a Rosemary’s Baby riff, another is straight Swamp Thing, and so on:
A final splice cut of the teasers set the whole thing to “Perfect Illusion,” because cross-promotion is key to a thriving muse-artist relationship.
When finally hit with the “What gives?” at August’s Television Critics Association press tour, FX chief John Landgraf explained that the clips are actually an Easter egg hunt: “One of them is accurate; all the others are misdirects,” he said, because “we think it will be fun for the audience to have the surprise this year.” (Though he did let slip that the season is actually set in two time periods, one of which is the present. So much for 13 hours of Gaga in period garb.)
And, well: Exactly! As long as it’s working, a campaign transparently designed to stoke fan speculation and the implosion of the Tumblr “#ahs” tag is great. This is the most excited I’ve been for an American Horror Story season since I realized that even casting a lead in her 20s wouldn’t keep Murphy away from the “female villain who wants to stay young forever” trope. And the fact that the show is resisting the impulse to spell out the whole arc beforehand gives me hope this show will resist its other, baser impulses, too — like the one that led it to kill off a genuinely terrifying villain by the fourth episode.
“Surprise” is what’s been missing from American Horror Story for years, and the show has finally seen fit to restore it. Maybe pacing, coherent characters, and a manageably sized cast will see their day in the sun, too — or maybe this is just a savvy move by the marketing department that has nothing to do with the final product. Only time will tell — well, that and some prosthetic-assisted, blood-soaked, possibly human-on-minotaur sex scenes.