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[OPINION] American Horror Story - Every Season Ranked

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Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpoilerTV.

In the fall of 2011, American Horror Story seemed like a bit of a gamble for FX. Not much was known about the series when it debuted other than the buzzy cast (Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Jessica Lange) and lauded creators (Glee and Nip/Tuck producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk). A gothic soap with twisted thrills, it quickly became the most talked about series around every water cooler. With ratings rising consistently throughout the first season, it wasn’t long before AHS was an outright sensation, wowing both critics and audiences with dark, daring, and often disturbing storylines, electrifying performances, and some truly incredible cinematography and set dressing.

At the end of the first season, which has since been dubbed ‘Murder House’, Murphy and Falchuk announced that AHS would continue on as an anthology series, utilizing much of the same cast each year, but telling different stories with (mostly) brand new characters. Today, the show should be credited as kicking off the now-omnipresent wave of anthology series that dominate television: Fargo, Genius, American Crime, True Detective, and Murphy’s own American Crime Story and Feud are just a few. Over the years, debates have raged online on as to which season of AHS reigns supreme – and which one belongs six feet under.

With the eighth season, ‘Apocalypse’ set to debut tonight, I present the definitive ranking of every American Horror Story season so far... according to me.

7 – ‘Cult’ (Season 7)

Main Cast: Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Adina Porter, Billy Eichner, Allison Pill, and Billie Lourd.

A season that was notable only for Evan Peters’ phenomenal performance as psychotic cult leader Kai Anderson, 'Cult' was set around the election of Donald Trump in late 2016. Murphy crossed the stories of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Paulson), a liberal restaurateur who is haunted by her paralyzing phobias, and Kai, a mentally deranged young man who plays on the growing fear and hostility in America to form a suburban cult.

More than anything, 'Cult' served political platitudes that didn’t have much more to say than, ‘Trump is evil’ and ‘sexism and racism are bad’. What Murphy and his team neglected to do was write any fully-formed characters or work towards a clear climax. So while the season started off promisingly enough, it eventually gave way to the same issues that have plagued too many recent seasons of AHS. It meandered for episodes on end, became overstuffed with needless side stories, and used characters as puppets for the plot rather than ever really developing them. Despite an amusing repertoire of mostly-new cast members (Colton Haynes and Leslie Grossman also joined the fun), 'Cult' felt like it never really knew where it was going.

Perhaps most egregious of all, the audience was never even shown how the titular cult was formed, which was indicative of a larger issue with the season. Too many of the important plot points happened offscreen, probably because they made no sense and Murphy couldn’t figure out how to write them. It felt like the writers decided to do a topical season based on the election and just threw together all these pieces as they went along. Bits of it were fun, but as a whole, it was a mess.

By the end of the season, it seemed as though the series had totally given up on the main narrative. Instead, we got Evan Peters playing a range of real-life cult leaders from Charles Manson to Jim Jones in multiple episodes. These vignettes ranged from mildly amusing to totally absurd, and despite Peters’ stellar performance, they all felt unnecessary and little more than inconvenient distractions from the season getting to any logical conclusion. When all was said and done, the story had become so full of plot holes, implausibilities, and leaps in logic that it became impossible to enjoy the few things that the show was doing well.

6 – ‘Hotel’ (Season 5)

Main Cast: Lady Gaga, Matt Bomer, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Kathy Bates, Denis O’Hare, West Bentley and Angela Bassett.

Another example of a season that started off with promise but completely crumbled by the halfway point, 'Hotel' was a major transition for AHS, being the first season without star Jessica Lange. In her place, Murphy introduced Lady Gaga as The Countess, a bloodsucker who calls the mysterious Hotel Cortez home. While the direction, sets, costume design, and cinematography are among the best of the series, the cast and writing didn’t quite live up to the rest of the package.

Particularly trite was the story of the Ten Commandments Killer, a so-called mystery that became painstakingly obvious almost immediately. As with 'Cult', 'Hotel' introduced a number of interesting characters that the writers had no idea what to do with. Instead, by mid-way through the season they were adding a number of bizarre side-plots that distracted from the main arc and added little to the narrative. This is all the more devastating due to the fact that heavyweight talent like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Matt Bomer were essentially being thrown scraps.

One character and plot remains largely memorable, however. Denis O’Hare gave one of the finest performances of the entire series as Liz Taylor, an enigmatic transgender bartender who also resides within the Hotel Cortez. The flashbacks to Liz’s life before her transition, as well as how she came to the hotel, remain a crowning achievement of AHS, at once devastating and triumphant. O’Hare, who has consistently been a series highlight, gave a bold and fearless performance that makes me question why he wasn’t given more to do in 'Roanoke' or brought back at all for 'Cult'.

5 – ‘Roanoke’ (Season 6)

Main Cast: Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kathy Bates, Adina Porter, Angela Bassett, Lily Rabe, Andre Holland, Wes Bentley and Cheyenne Jackson.

'Roanoke' will always get some bonus points in my book for shaking things up. While Murphy typically announces the theme of each season months in advance (coupled with vast promotional campaigns from FX), 'Roanoke' remained a mystery until the season premiere aired… and even then, fans weren’t exactly sure what they were watching. Initially billed as ‘My Roanoke Nightmare’, the season was essentially split into two, with the first five episodes telling the story of a haunting in North Carolina, presented as a docu-drama complete with actors performing re-enactments and the real-life 'survivors’ telling their stories through confessional footage. At episode six, the paradigm shifts, and the story is then told through found footage billed as ‘Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell’.

If all of that sounds a bit confusing, it was. Many actors were playing two, sometimes three, roles. Nevertheless, it was mostly wildly entertaining, and even a bit scary in parts. It was also the rare installment of the series that got better as it went along. What it lacked, however, were any truly great characters (though Paulson’s campy, entitled actress Audrey Tindall was endlessly amusing). Even the weakest seasons of AHS have given us memorable character arcs, while 'Roanoke' was much more focused on style and story than any real character development. The result was a season that was fun if not fantastic. That is, until the truly awful finale, which deserted all thrills in favor of more gimmicky show-within-the-show pieces that let down all the excitement and tension that had built for the previous 9 weeks.

The need to unnecessarily, and illogically, shoehorn in Lana Winters from 'Asylum' was confirmation that Murphy’s decision to oblige fan-demand that each season be connected could hurt the show more than it might ever help it. Hopefully it will work out much better for 'Apocalypse'.

4 – ‘Freak Show’ (Season 4)

Main Cast: Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Michael Chiklis, Finn Wittrock, and Dennis O’Hare.

'Freak Show' was the toughest to place on my list. Divisive amongst fans while it aired, it has aged better for me than any installment that has come since. It was also the last season to feature Jessica Lange in a lead role, and despite several incredible performances from many talented actors in subsequence seasons, the series has never been able to fully recapture the magic that Lange brought to each of her characters. Here, she starred as Elsa Mars, an enigmatic ex-pat who runs Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities in Jupiter, Florida. While Lange gave a killer performance, it was actually a newcomer who stole the show.

Finn Wittrock joined the series as Dandy Mott, a spoiled, rich, man-child who developed a perverse obsession with Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins Bette and Dot. Mott, after forming a chill-inducing friendship with (the sorely underutilized) a murderous clown named Twisty, becomes the true villain of the season. Wittrock’s performance was electric, consistently both terrifying and oddly endearing – he reminded me, at times, of a young Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Likewise, the cinematography and set decoration also harkened back to classic Kubrick. Directors like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Michael Uppendahl brought an often-claustrophobic feeling to the series, utilizing gorgeous sets and locations that were at once stylish, sprawling, and haunting. 'Freak Show' wasn’t perfect (let’s just pretend 90% of the musical numbers never happened) but it had tons of fantastic characters and was able to nail a satisfying ending for pretty much every one of them.

3 – ‘Coven’ (Season 3)

Main Cast: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, Dennis O’Hare, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Lily Rabe, and Frances Conroy.

While easily the most popular season ratings-wise, 'Coven' was the installment where AHS began to show real cracks. Looking back, it has many of the same issues that later proliferated in subsequent seasons. Still, many fans call 'Coven' their absolute favorite. More so than he did with the first two seasons, Murphy fully embraced supernatural camp here, telling the story of Miss Robichaux's Academy, a conservatory for young witches in New Orleans run by headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Paulson), the daughter of the current Supreme, Fiona (Lange). The main storyline follows the question of which young woman will become the next Supreme, a witch born every generation who embodies specific gifts and magical abilities known as the Seven Wonders.

Murphy also tied in some haunting New Orleans lore, including the twisted story of slave killer Delphine LaLaurie (Bates), voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Bassett), and the notorious Axeman serial killer (Danny Huston). Plus, Stevie Nicks showed up and twirled around and sang some songs.

My main problem with this season was the lack of follow-through for so many introduced storylines. We discover early on that each of the young main witches has a specific unique gift (or curse, in some cases) but they’re never explained. I was hoping that the finale would shed some light, for example, on why Taissa Farmiga’s character Zoe spontaneously kills men when she has sex with them. No such luck. There were also too many characters who were inessential to the plot (this is the only season where Evan Peters' character feels like an after-thought). If you take 'Coven' for what it is – ridiculously campy, scary fun with great performances and snappy writing – it’s easily enjoyable. If you’re looking for cohesive stories or character arcs with follow-through, look elsewhere.

2 – ‘Murder House’ (Season 1)

Main Cast: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Dennis O’Hare, Lily Rabe, and Francis Conroy.

The season that started it all still holds up as one of the strongest installments of the franchise. A biting thriller centered around the Harmon family’s quest to start over after a series of troubling events, the first season was a fascinating mix of scary, sexy, sad, and twisted. Knockout performances from Connie Britton and Jessica Lange put the series on the map, but it was the entire ensemble that made this season so memorable.

'Murder House' accomplished what too many of the following seasons have failed to: it told a singular, cohesive story that nailed a spectacular climax (“Birth”) and a satisfying conclusion (“Afterbirth”). Murphy expertly utilized a large cast with stories spanning not only decades but entire generations, to tell a universal story about infidelity, infatuation, love, loss, and family. Despite the ghosts, monsters, and – of course – Rubber Man, the most affecting moments were human: Vivien (Britton) being pushed to the limits of her sanity, Tate (Peters) having to face up to his brutal, murderous past, and Constance (Lange) reflecting on the horrifying realities of her broken family.

1 – ‘Asylum’ (Season 2)

Main Cast: Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto, Joseph Fiennes, James Cromwell, and Lizzie Brocheré.

Not just the best season of AHS, 'Asylum' is also one of the finest limited series to air this decade. Masterfully directed, written, and designed, and populated with brilliant characters, 'Asylum' wasn’t just creepy – it was downright terrifying. It was also frequently funny, sharp, and incredibly poignant.

Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Jessica Lange as Sister Jude, a nun maintaining patients at Briarcliff Manor in 1964, 'Asylum' also spanned several decades and told multiple stories but was able to follow a clear throughline and deliver a satisfying conclusion. This is perhaps even more impressive when you take into account exactly how much was covered in just 13 episodes: dozens of complex and often endearing patients, a nun possessed by the devil, a gruesome serial killer with unsettling mommy issues, a deranged doctor who may or may not have been a Nazi (Anne Frank shows up), a killer in a Santa suit, and even some aliens.

Despite all of this, what 'Asylum' got right amidst even the most otherworldly trappings, was that the human stories mattered most. Murphy gave us characters who we could root for, so that when they were in danger or being oppressed and tortured we genuinely cared. This also led to more genuine scares than any other season. Sarah Paulson’s reporter, Lana Winters, went through some of the most macabre and horrifying trials of any character on the series, and she remains one of the most beloved because she was so thoughtfully developed and written. Even with all the wild implausibilities, viewers could see themselves in these characters and situations - and nothing is more frightening than that.


What has been your favorite season of American Horror Story so far? Let me know what you think about my ranking in the comment section & keep checking back for more on the new season. To read more of my work, feel free to follow me on Twitter and check out SpoilerTV’s official Instagram page here.

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