Almost ten years ago, FX debuted a new TV series from Ryan Murphy called American Horror Story. Few at the time could have anticipated how the show would lead the way for a slew of changes in the way television would operate. Not only did the series help move the line on content standards on cable (today there's basically no limit to what you can say or show on basic cable) but it helped usher in the era of the limited series, which over the course of a decade has come to dominate the world of prestige TV. Of course, American Horror Story wasn't considered prestige TV when it premiered (and it's not really today). It was junky and vulgar and over-the-top. But it also attracted some phenomenal actors to its playground, and despite some less than stellar initial reviews, it became a ratings hit and an undeniable force on TV.
This week the team behind the show is set to premiere a new spinoff series on a spinoff network, both with irritating titles. Still, FX on Hulu's American Horror Stories represents a new frontier for Murphy's venerable old warhorse. Whereas the original American Horror Story (singular) shook things up by presenting 13-episode seasons that told one complete story before starting over with a new story the next year, Stories (plural) makes the anthology even more granular by delivering standalone stories episode by episode. A 13-episode season will now tell 13 distinct stories, offering exponentially more opportunities for wild tales and eye-popping casting choices.
The standalone episodes gambit also gives the AHS franchise a chance to solve its biggest problem. While fans of the show can (and often do) debate which season of the show was strongest from start to finish, usually you have to look as far back as Season 2's "Asylum" to find a story that stayed strong from beginning to end … and even there you'll get some pushback from detractors about the alien subplot.
Taken as a whole, American Horror Story has presented its seasons with addictive, hooky setups, including the thrill of seeing which actors have come onboard to tell the new season's story. And yet inevitably, over time, said seasons have lagged in the middle, meandered down side alleys that don't always deliver, and/or straight-up failed to stick the landing. With Stories, it's all the thrill of first love, giving Murphy and team the chance to luxuriate in the thing they do best: springing wild new concepts and casting decisions on their unsuspecting audience, without having the time to lose their way.
Of course, in typical AHS fashion, the first episode of Stories already breaks the brand new rules the show set for itself. Kind of. The July 15th premiere is a two-part, two-hour premiere of an episode titled "Rubber(wo)man," parts one and two. Not only does this promise that the first standalone story will stand as a duo, it also suggests a possible theme for the season of revisiting old AHS lore.
Longtime viewers will remember that the Rubberman was a particularly visually striking character from the first season of American Horror Story, titled "Murder House." The Rubberman was one of several lurking baddies haunting the titular home, one so terrifying that he was used for much of the marketing for the series. The title of the Stories premiere seems to promise at the very least a callback to the original season … and perhaps some of the original characters as well. Other episode titles and descriptions — "Drive In"; "The Naughty List" — don't seem to be alluding to specific Horror Story history, but this is a series that's always loved an Easter Egg, so it wouldn't surprise if there were more hidden connections to the greater series lurking in Stories.
If Stories succeeds, it's easy to envision the mothership going in the opposite direction and becoming more serialized. The show's most successful recent season was American Horror Story: Apocalypse, which rather unexpectedly turned into a sequel season to Season 3's "Coven" in a way that — Easter Eggs aside — no other season has done before or since. More than anything, "Apocalypse" proved that there was an appetite among the show's fanbase (and, seemingly, its writers room) for its classic characters. Perhaps if Stories makes its more granular tales work, American Horror Story will revisit more of its old characters, ironically becoming more and more like the TV shows it shook up nearly a decade ago.
The world of television has changed so much in ten years, with more shows, streaming platforms and movie stars on TV with every passing year. When American Horror Story began, a 13-episode season was refreshingly short. Today 13 hour-long episodes feels like a lengthy time commitment. American Horror Stories and its bite-sized horrors could be just what the (witch) doctor ordered.
FX on Hulu drops American Horror Stories' two-episode series premiere this Thursday July 15th.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.