Roanoke isn’t exactly good, but the hook is so wacky, and the performances so balls-to-the-wall weird, that it’s hard not to appreciate how firmly it disrupts American Horror Story’s status quo.
The season was sheathed in mystery going in -- the commercials all teased different potential themes, each one ending with a question mark. Viewers had to tune into the premiere to see what was up, and even that didn’t answer much. It’s about a reality show? A fake reality show? What?
The season actually centered on a paranormal documentary called My Roanoke Nightmare, about a couple who moved into a haunted 18th-century mansion that was once the site of the disappearing Roanoke Colony. The documentary features the talking heads of the “real” couple and witnesses, along with actors who recreate the dramatic moments. For several episodes, the show goes on like this, taking us through the horrors the couple witnessed -- dead nurses, an evil woods witch, the spirit of a maniacal “Butcher” who wants the heads of all who wronged her.
But then, mid-season, the rug is pulled and the story refocuses. We’re told that My Roanoke Nightmare was a ratings smash, and the network develops a new series where the real people and the actors who portrayed them go back to the house together and film their experiences. Because this is American Horror Story, things go bad and almost everyone dies.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but the show really doesn’t give a shit. The season winds up being both legitimately scary and a great spoof of the found-footage horror trend, with plenty of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity vibes. It also serves as a biting commentary on the bloodthirsty business that is reality television, itself a kind of American horror story.
Roanoke also lets its cadre of actors let loose and have a lot of fun. Sarah Paulson is notably excellent and effectively campy as Audrey Tindall, the recreation actress portraying My Roanoke Nightmare's female lead (Paulson also reprises her Asylum character, Lana Winters, in the finale). But the real standout is Adina Porter as Lee Harris, whose narrative as a ruthless grieving mother lends the season some gravity, and twists the story in unexpected ways.
Roanoke suffers a bit from shoddy writing, and it falls apart near the end, but it breathed new life into the Lange-less later seasons, and expanded the format in a truly unique and interesting way. Major points for effort.