I’ve been watching American Horror Story since its first season in 2011. I think the only show I’ve stuck with even longer is The Simpsons. And as with The Simpsons, I sometimes think I’ve stuck with this show a lot longer than it deserves. But somehow I just can’t quit AHS. When it’s at its best, it’s campy and gory and over the top and yet incredibly affecting, and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.
One day several years ago, I started randomly musing about what I’d write if I were somehow tasked with creating a season of AHS; the plot I came up with ended up becoming Tidepool. There’s still a little bit of that show coded in my debut novel’s DNA.
The anthology format makes each season so different that people get into major arguments over their favorites. Naturally, I felt compelled to add to the noise with my own rankings in order to mark the tenth anniversary of the series. I’m someone who focuses on well-developed characters first, followed by a strong story. If I found either or both things lacking in a given season–if the characters weren’t likable or at least believable, or if the story was a confusing mess–then I probably didn’t enjoy it too much.
Note: I have not watched the spinoff American Horror Stories. We don’t have access to FX on Hulu, and to be honest, nothing I’ve heard about this series makes me want to change that.
10. Season 7, Cult. What a waste of a potentially interesting concept. The writers wanted to Make A Statement about the 2016 elections, but “Personality Cults Are Bad” is hardly a piping hot take, and “Both Sides Are Equally Bad” is gutless. This season is chockablock with unsympathetic characters acting out a dull, unfocused story. Worse yet, it introduced Leslie Grossman to the series. I’m sorry, but I do not understand Ryan Murphy’s obsession with her. She plays one character. Every season. It’s not even a very entertaining character; “Obnoxious Bitch” gets really old really fast. How did AHS go from Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett to that?
But even the performers I usually like weren’t great this time out. No, I don’t think Evan Peters was particularly amazing either as Kai or as the various cult leaders he portrayed, who all just looked like Evan Peters dressing up as infamous people for Halloween. I really like him, but not in this season.
Generally, even the weaker seasons of AHS have an episode I like to rewatch or a character or two I enjoy. But I haven’t rewatched a second of Cult since its original airing, and I don’t see that changing.
9. Season 10, Double Feature. To be fair, I think the development of this season was screwed twenty ways from Sunday by COVID-19, and everyone did the best they could. That’s the only reason I’m ranking it above Cult.
When I saw the promos for this season, I was amused. All those years ago I’d come up with Tidepool while imagining an American Horror Story season set by the ocean, and now just as Tidepool was being published, AHS was doing an ocean-set storyline. My universe has an odd sense of humor sometimes.
However, the Red Tide half of the season had nothing to do with Lovecraftian horrors. It was about vampires. As a writer, I was intrigued by the idea of a pill that could either make you a wild success if you had talent, or render you an 80s Nosferatu near-zombie if you didn’t. Either way, you’d become a bloodsucker.
Red Tide made this fascinating idea about as predictable and uninteresting as possible. Nothing about the season’s progression surprised me. The characters were almost uniformly one-dimensional and unappealing, with the temporary exception of Macaulay Culkin’s hustler Mickey before the black pill turned him into another asshole. Long gone are the heady days of AHS when even the Nazi scientists had layers. Current AHS villains are just cartoonishly awful people. And it’s so boring.
I almost forgave Red Tide when Death Valley premiered. The first three episodes were wild and entertaining, and I never expected Dwight Eisenhower to become one of my favorite AHS characters.
The AHS seasons that start so well but end so poorly break my heart way more than the ones that never caught my interest. What the hell was that ending? I find the idea of Henry Kissinger being a lizard person amusing, but you’re just gonna introduce that idea and then do absolutely nothing with it? “Oh yeah. We know about the lizard people. They’re not a threat.” What!?
I usually watch the replay FX runs after each new episode, but I didn’t even bother after the season finale. I switched over to Netflix and put on Squid Game, a show that could teach American Horror Story everything it seems to have forgotten about compelling, unpredictable storylines and complex, appealing characters.
8. Season 5, Hotel. There are some great characters in this one and the setting had tons of potential, and yet it didn’t work for me. I guessed who the Ten Commandments Killer was well before the big reveal, and while I generally like Wes Bentley, I didn’t think his character was strong enough to carry the whole season. And don’t get me started on Lady Gaga. Most of the time, the show didn’t have her do more than stalk around looking elegant and intimidating while tossing off one-liners, which was fine. When they tried to push her for more emotion, I got secondhand embarrassment. I assume she took some hardcore acting lessons between AHS and A Star is Born.
However, because this season features two of my all-time favorite AHS characters in Liz Taylor and James Patrick March, and one of my all-time favorite AHS friendships in Liz and Iris, I can’t completely dislike it. And I liked March’s annual serial killer reunion. But that’s about all I’ve got to say for it.
7. Season 3, Coven. Gasp! Many AHS fans love this one, but not me. It had lots of promise but turned into a confusing, muddled mess. A season about Fiona Goode v. Marie Laveau, or Fiona and Marie teaming up against the witch killers with Mme. LaLaurie as a dangerous free agent, would have been fine. Potentially awesome, even. But no, they had to bring in the obnoxious religious lady, and the Axe Man, and Cordelia’s infertility, and the men trying to kill off all the witches, and Stevie Nicks (who was fun to a point but got way overused), and, and, and…
This season was also undercut by the witches constantly bringing dead characters back to life, so that deaths were robbed of all emotional impact. And it ended with a whimper. We’d been led to believe that one of the witch academy students would be the new Supreme, and Cordelia suddenly acing the Seven Wonders test felt like an out-of-nowhere cheat to me. I really wanted to like this one, but I just couldn’t warm up to it.
6. Season 8, Apocalypse. This one hurts, because for the first few episodes it was on track to be one of my favorite seasons. I liked the post-apocalyptic setting, and I liked Cody Fern’s Michael Langdon. This storyline payoff was a long time in the making. You already knew who and what Michael was if you saw the first season, so you just had to sit back and wait for the other characters to figure it out. Joan Collins and Billy Porter fit in with the cast as if they’d been part of the AHS repertory group the whole time, and I’m always pleased to see BD Wong.
And even if I wasn’t a big Coven fan, I think I enjoyed the returning characters better than I did in their original season. The battle between the witches and the warlocks trying to push Michael as the new Supreme worked for me. That scene when Michael went into Misty’s hell to bring her back was genuinely scary. And I can never fully dislike a season that featured the glorious return of Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and the Murder House.
But then the season introduced a load of cheesy 80s Geraldo Rivera-style Satanic rubbish. And whatever the hell Billy Eichner and Evan Peters were supposed to be. And robots. And time travel. And Russian princess Anastasia. (!?) And Stevie Nicks again. I like Stevie Nicks, honest, but her appearances that turned into music videos in both Coven and Apocalypse brought those episodes to a screeching halt. And thus, Apocalypse lost me.
5. Season 9, 1984. I know what I hate, and I didn’t hate this. I went into it with zero expectations, which is how recent AHS seasons should all be approached. 1984 lacked several of the big AHS stars of the past, though it did have the wonderful John Carroll Lynch. It didn’t have an overarching message. It didn’t try to be about anything more than what it was, and it was a fun riff on 80s slasher movies. And as someone who grew up on those, I dug it.
I could have done without the glow-up of real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, who wasn’t nearly as attractive or charismatic as Zach Villa’s portrayal made him seem. But bringing a real murderer into an 80s slasher setting and pitting him against a fictional killer was a novel take, even if the show played fast and loose with facts about the Night Stalker’s life (and death). 1984 even managed to have a touching, satisfying conclusion. It’s not my favorite season overall, but it was a pleasant surprise.
4. Season 4, Freak Show. This is another season that started off well but got overstuffed and muddled. I enjoyed the central conflict of Elsa’s circus being pitted against both the townspeople of Jupiter and the greedy con man who wants to kill the performers and sell them to the American Morbidity Museum (ugh). But yet again it veered off in confusing directions with Dandy the psycho adult boy, Neil Patrick Harris’s creepy magician, his sometimes-human dummy, and Elsa’s foray into Hollywood.
But there were still a lot of good aspects to this season, so it ranks relatively high for me. It’s a shame that Twisty the Clown was killed off so early, because John Carroll Lynch shares Kathy Bates’s ability to imbue terrible characters with a certain pathos. I also liked the Edward Mordrake subplot; the scene when he comes rolling in on a green fog as Elsa performs “Gods and Monsters” makes my dark little heart so happy. And if you can watch Pepper’s origin episode and remain unmoved, you must be made of stone. Freak Show is far from a perfect season, but I enjoyed it a lot more than AHS fans generally did.
Lana Del Rey was a few decades away from being born at the time Freak Show takes place. Your ability to roll with things like blatant musical anachronisms will probably determine how much you enjoy this season.
Also, Amazon Eve and Ma Petite were my second favorite AHS friendship.
And now we’re at my top three. Two of them aren’t very controversial picks, but my #3 will be.
3. Season 6, Roanoke. People either really liked this season or really hated it, and the fandom consensus has tipped towards “hate” in recent years. Me? I thought it was cool. It was a gutsy, risky break from the show’s traditional format. My Roanoke Nightmare, the documentary-within-a-show that took up the first few episodes, was creepy and well done. Although that format robbed the early episodes of suspense, as the main couple obviously survived to tell their story, Episode 6 turned the entire season on its ear and might be one of my all-time favorite AHS episodes. (That scene when Rory lounges in the outdoor hot tub during the blood moon, completely oblivious to the circling torches in the distance? Brrr.)
Yes, the second half found footage concept falls apart, but I didn’t care. I loved all the drama and bad feelings between the My Roanoke Nightmare actors and their real-life counterparts, especially when the show’s director and his smug actors got what was coming to them. And I really enjoyed the final episode.
I could have done without the redneck cannibal torture family, a symbol of AHS’s tendency to stuff at least one subplot too many into every season, but other than that I really like Roanoke. It was well received by the entertainment sites I read at the time, so I’m surprised by the bad reputation it has now.
2. Season 1, Murder House. Here’s where it all began. The camp. The grotesque horror. The heyday of the divine Jessica Lange. The Rubber Man. The outrageous “What the actual hell did I just watch?” scenes. Cry-sturbation! The scenes that managed to mix a little sweetness into the darkness, as when Constance’s dead boy toy has a tea party with the ghosts of Larry’s burned daughters. Although there were subplots aplenty, they all tied into the main storyline.
This was back when AHS characters were all multi-dimensional and compelling even when they were terrible people. Ben Harmon was an awful husband and a poor dad and yet, by the end of “Birth,” damned if I didn’t feel really sorry for him. Compare that to Harry from Season 10; I did not give one shit about him (or anyone else left in the season) by the end of Red Tide.
And Tate! Did he have any idea who and what he really was and what he’d done in the past? Evan Peters’s performance kept you guessing for almost the entire season and was an early preview of the talent that eventually earned him an Emmy for Mare of Easttown. And just what the heck was going on with Violet? Even the less-than-awesome episodes of this season were still extremely watchable.
Murder House could have easily been my #1 pick, but its immediate successor grabbed me just a little bit more overall.
1. Season 2, Asylum.
I know I’m far from alone with this pick, which is funny because I remember this season being poorly received when it initially aired. So ha. I think half the reason I’ve stayed with this show even as it’s become a shell of its former self is because I hold out an improbable hope that some day, somehow, there will be another season as good as Asylum was. At this point, I’d be satisfied with a season that was half as good. All the outrageous, over-the-top, campy elements were present in Asylum, but they were backed up by across-the-board outstanding performances and an overall cohesive storyline. (Yes, even the aliens served an actual storyline purpose, so I’ll allow that particular subplot.)
Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters might be her best AHS character to date. She suffers a lot in Asylum, but she’s far from a sickeningly noble heroine; she’ll lie about her past and embellish details to make herself look better, and she’ll sell people out to get what she wants or forget them entirely when they’re of no further use to her. (See? Layers.) James Cromwell’s Dr. Arden is a vile human being even before we find out who he really is, and yet his affection for the sweet Sister Mary Eunice and his despair over her fate makes him seem way more human than he has any right to be. Evan Peters’s Kit is a genuinely good, forgiving soul, but he’s unafraid to call Lana out on her bullshit when need be. Zachary Quinto’s Dr. Thredson seems like a buttoned-down, earnest sort, and so other characters trust him…even when they really shouldn’t.
And oh, Sister Jude, you trainwreck of a goddess. How did such a cruel battle-axe of a character become so damn pitiful and compelling by the end of the season? Because she was played by Jessica Lange, of course. But also because she was complicated and multi-dimensional, something that has been sadly lacking in the characters in recent AHS seasons.
So that’s my ranking. All AHS seasons except the current one are streaming on Netflix at the moment, so if you’ve never seen the series, I do recommend it even if I think most of the recent seasons have been disappointing. (But mind the content warnings at the start of every episode.) When it’s good, it’s really good. If you’ve watched all the seasons, I’d love to know your own favorites and unfavorites.
And if you actually read all this, you deserve a reward. Here’s Jessica Lange performing “The Name Game” in Asylum. If there’s one scene that really sums up this series at its best, this is the one.