Roanoke (season 6, aired in 2016)
It’s fitting that Roanoke lands exactly in the middle of this ranking, because it’s the one I have the most conflicted feelings about. On the one hand, the first half of the season is a bit trite, a winking mockery of cable reality shows about “real life” hauntings and the like. But the second half of the season is a brutal satire of the entertainment industry, and its finale feels like Murphy and everyone else involved in the show burying the hand that feeds in an unmarked grave.
Filmed as a mockumentary and featuring an in-show reality TV program that aims to document a “real” couple’s experiences moving into a haunted mansion (thus pulling in some DNA from American Horror Story’s first season, Murder House), Roanoke keeps peeling back layers, first revealing the actors behind the “reality show,” then heading all the way to the seats of the entertainment industry’s power in Los Angeles. The ghosts are a little underbaked, but maybe that’s the point. The real horrors are always out here in the real world, after all.
Roanoke is an ungainly season of television, but in its dissection of the ways that we keep filming everything, even when our lives are in danger, and the ways that tendency often leads to a world where we become desensitized to horrible behavior, it gets at something profound, if unintentionally.
Murder House (season 1, aired in 2011)
It took most of American Horror Story’s first season to convince me it was doing something of note. After nearly every episode (I recapped them all for another site), I found myself wondering why the show didn’t seem to play by the narrative conventions of horror, or television, or storytelling, really. But at some point, I realized that its melange of tropes and ideas was the point. Murphy might have famously said that Murder House was about “a marriage,” but it was really about the idea of marriage and heterosexuality that pop culture feeds to us, filtered first through horror films and then through Murphy’s unique sensibility.
The plot of Murder House is probably the most coherent of any American Horror Story season — a couple moves into a house with a dark history, and then the house starts tearing their marriage (and their teenage daughter) apart at the seams. It lacks some of the grandly operatic quality that drives most of the later seasons, and there are whole episodes that essentially amount to, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we riffed on this horror trope?”
But the acting is good (particularly from Jessica Lange, the star of the show’s first four seasons), and the sheer daring of just killing off everybody in the cast speaks to how the show immediately set about rewriting the rules of TV, right under our noses.