Will 'American Horror Story' Scare Programmers into Following Its Lead?


Some people believe life is all about taking risks. In Hollywood, risk is usually averted in favor of following a proven formula. How else can you explain the constant remakes, re-imaginings and sequels that fill our cinemas of late? Television scribes also trend toward the rehashing old ideas.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, co-creators of the FX series “American Horror Story,” are taking a risk by bucking all proven television formulas.

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“American Horror Story” just completed its first season. The show centered on the Harmon family – husband Ben (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), as they moved from Boston to Los Angeles to seek a fresh start after Vivien caught Ben in an extramarital affair.

**Major Spoilers Ahead**

The show boasted plenty of supporting characters, but the most important one was the house the Harmons moved into. The home was populated by the spirits of the many people who had died there over the years, earning it the nickname “The Murder House” and a spot on a Hollywood tour of notorious places. For some reason, which was never explained, the spirits of those who died in the house were unable to move on into the afterlife, but could interact with the living that entered the house.

With a moniker like “The Murder House,” the storyline of the series featured more than its fair share of deaths. By the end of the season finale, the entire Harmon family was dead, except for Vivien’s baby. Fans were left wondering where the story could go with the majority of the cast having been killed off.

That’s where Murphy and Falchuk’s risk comes in.

What many fans didn’t know is the plan from the outset was for each season of “American Horror Story” to be a stand alone story, each with its own beginning, middle and end. Basically, each season will be a twelve-episode miniseries. Some of the cast members will return for the next season, joined by new members, but they will be completely different characters in a completely different story.

The idea of the stand-alone, limited season isn’t new. BBC television works in such a fashion, with shows expected to have a beginning, middle and end – often in one season. That allows producers to work with movie stars who might hanker for a shot at long-form storytelling without giving up the flexibility they crave.

This approach to U.S. television is a breath of fresh air, but it does have inherent risks.

Success in television is determined by the numbers of viewers a series can draw in a specific demographic week after week. Each year, networks debut new series knowing that a certain percentage of them will be canceled in the first month or two. Even if they survive a full first season, many never see a second. Sure, fans have mounted successful campaigns to bring a series back from the chopping block. Two recent examples are CBS’s “Jericho” and NBC’s “Chuck,” but these are rare exceptions. Once a decision to cancel a series is made, it is usually final.

The first season of “American Horror Story” was successful by all accounts, finishing as the highest rated series to debut on the FX network. What happens if the fans who loved the first season hate the next season’s story? The network is banking on the fact that Murphy and Falchuk can basically create a new series, year after year, that will appeal to the same audience and hopefully draw in even more viewers.

Every television series runs the risk of losing viewers from one season to the next, based on the changes the storyline undergoes. Writers, directors and producers come and go, and they all have an effect on the story. Fans of the series “24” are well aware of the changes that came after co-creator Joel Surnow left, moving it from a show with a conservative leaning and fan base to just another left-wing mouthpiece.

Imagine what would have happened if, in season two of “24,” Jack Bauer was gone, there was no CTU and instead of chasing terrorists, the main characters were DEA agents trying to stop a Mexican drug-smuggling ring? Then season three was about secret service agents tracking counterfeiters. You would probably tune in to see if the show was as good as the last season, and as long as the same creative team was in place you would probably enjoy it. That is what Murphy and Falchuk are hoping will happen with “American Horror Story.”

No television series can continue forever. They all run the risk of becoming stale over time. There are too many options out there for people to turn to when they become bored. The rise of the cable networks only increases the need to produce a story that will keep viewers tuning in.

Will we now see other new series developed with this same approach? It’s possible, but the Hollywood power brokers will probably wait to see how viewers respond to subsequent seasons of “American Horror Story” before taking their own risk.


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