It is probably just a coincidence that this week, which marks the first wave of fall show premieres, also happened to be the same week NBC announced its new streaming service, Peacock. The announcement did not list pricing or launch dates, however, only a laundry list of content. Content is the next phase of the entertainment realignment, and content supercreators like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy are the prizes, to be protected creatively at all cost. For a long time, the networks held all the power. Now, TV storytellers are doing things that once would never had made it on screen.
This free reign is on full display in Murphy’s latest season of “American Horror Story,” which premieres on Wednesday. One of Murphy’s earliest concept series in the wake of his “Glee” success, “American Horror Story” is now his most successful franchise. Billed as an anthology series, Murphy adapted the old-school format once popularized by “The Twilight Zone,” where each episode was a standalone story, and made each season a standalone story instead, albeit with a recurring cast of actors. While past years have explored covens, hotels and cults, season nine is bringing fans back to the delightfully horrifying 1980s.
While past years have explored covens, hotels and cults, season nine is bringing fans back to the delightfully horrifying 1980s.
It seems that 30-year nostalgia cycles are becoming the norm. In the 1980s, many films and TV shows were looking back at the 1950s. From “Back to the Future” to “Stand By Me,” nostalgia for a world before technology was everywhere. The back half of the 2010s has cycled back around again to embrace similar themes; “Stranger Things” and the forthcoming “Wonder Woman” sequel draw inspiration from an era (the 1980s) when the world was a little less big — and a little less loud.
But Ryan isn’t just following the trends here. He has picked this era on purpose because of the classic slasher films it birthed, from “Friday the 13th” to “Nightmare on Elm Street” to “Halloween.” The initial teasers for the series felt like screaming clichés, with the old metal beer cans, partying teens and a creepy masked murderer. There was even an extended clip of a blonde trying to start a stalled ’80s compact car, because teens never make good choices in these sorts of situations.
But it turns out that none of the stories teased online are part of the actual season. FX let Murphy create an entire backstory of clips completely separate from the show. The real story stars Murphy regulars Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd and Cody Fern who, naturally, find themselves in the path of a mass murderer (Mr. Jingles) they have never heard of. Those who do understand the situation, like Matthew Morrison (who starred in Murphy’s “Glee”) and Angelica Ross (who just closed out her run on Murphy’s “Pose”), likely won’t be able to warn these poor kids in time.
This is all fans know going into the season, and critics haven’t been given much more to go on, either. Along with Murphy’s creative freedom, the showrunner’s desire for strict anti-spoiler secrecy has been carefully respected. This in contrast to Murphy’s Netflix project “The Politician,” when screeners were provided to critics far ahead of time.
Netflix’s deal with Murphy is probably a big reason why FX is so concerned with keeping him happy on their turf. The streaming service snatched Murphy up in a massive deal in 2018, leaving FX with only the shows Murphy had already produced going forward.
Still, FX is luckier than most. Murphy is committed to the ongoing “AHS” franchise on FX as well as “American Crime Story,” “Feud” and “Pose.” (He also produces the more predictable first responders procedural “9-1-1” on Fox.) But broadcast is a fickle beast, as those over at ABC can attest. After Rhimes signed a similar deal with Netflix, her once dominant Shondaland slate has slowly eroded away. After this TV season, which will see the end of "How To Get Away With Murder," ABC’s Shondaland Thursdays will be down to just “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19.”
FX currently has a fuller set of titles, but it still wants to keep Murphy happy. In the case of “AHS,” which due to its horror-based nature could easily slip into repetitive clichés, this is good news. The more Murphy is allowed to explore the complicated nature of terror without meddling from worried execs, the longer “American Horror Story” will remain one of the more relevant shows on TV. Here’s to letting the creators run wild — and slashing a few throats while they’re at it.