When “American Horror Story” premiered five years ago on FX few people would have guessed that the seemingly standard horror series would actually become landmark television and single-handedly revive the career of both one of America’s greatest actresses (Jessica Lange) and the concept of the “limited series” or “miniseries” which had dominated television in the 70s and 80s. Which seasons were the worst and which were the best? Click through our photo gallery above highlighting my personal rankings of every installment so far.
The show’s original concept of having a couple (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) move into a strange house where they were tormented by evil doings seemed vaguely familiar to movie fans (“The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist”) and the dark macabre ambience of the show may have seemed like just another attempt to ride the wave of vampire, werewolf and other demonic fare that was currently engulfing American pop culture. Even first season co-star Lange expressed her doubts about the show when first offered the program but as she explained in her first season Emmy speech, creator Ryan Murphy made her more promises than any man she ever met but unlike the other men, he kept them.
In truth when the show first premiered it almost seemed a little sad that the two-time Oscar winning actress had been reduced to a peripheral role as an odd neighbor on a cable television show while her contemporaries Meryl Streep and Glenn Close (who rose to fame at approximately the same time and were often and competition for roles) were both heavy hitters in that year’s Oscar race for “The Iron Lady” and “Albert Nobbs,” respectively. But as Murphy had promised, Lange’s role blossomed as the season went along and it would carry her to a level of popularity she had never known before.
As the first season concluded and the fates of the residents were revealed and loose ends were neatly tied up, it became increasingly perplexing how Murphy would ever proceed in the second season. Would another family just move into the inhospitable home and suffer its madness, as the final episode seemed to suggest? But that is where Murphy made perhaps his boldest and perhaps most historical decision. Instead of having more victims move into a second season of “Murder House,” the series kept its key player (Lange) and began an entirely new story. The show retained the “American Horror Story” moniker but much as with “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery” in decades prior the show started bringing different concepts and types of horror tales to audiences.
In subsequent years anthology series such as “Fargo,” “American Crime” and “True Detective” all followed in the show’s path of using different casts and new stories for their subsequent seasons. As was the tradition in the days of repertory theater, “American Horror Story” began having cast members return in different roles and critics pronounced the concept reminiscent of what Orson Wells had done with his Mercury Players in the early days of radio. In addition to Lange, performers such as Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Angela Basset, Finn Wittrock, James Cromwell and Zachary Quinto would all achieve Emmy nominations or wins throughout the series’ run.
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