Life imitates grisly reality TV in one of television's edgiest and most acclaimed shows ever! Told in gripping true-crime documentary style, "My Roanoke Nightmare" — this season's show within the show — chronicles shocking paranormal events. Hoping to begin a peaceful new life in a rustic North Carolina farmhouse, Shelby and Matt Miller (Emmy® winner Sarah Paulson and Oscar Winner Cuba Gooding Jr) flee Los Angeles, only to find murder, mayhem and madness! From a girl ghost to a swine monster to murderous nurse sisters to a sadistic cult leader known as "The Butcher" (OSCAR® Winner Kathy Bates), the couple's home is filled with nonstop terrors.
It's only natural for any long-running TV show to start to feel a little stale after a while -- even an anthology series as batshit crazy as FX's American Horror Story. Despite offering a completely new tale of terror every season, the show has by-and-large adhered to similar storytelling cues and stylistic devices, making some elements feel a bit repetitive year after year.
But with Roanoke, the series' sixth season, the producers have decided to mix things up in a big way, offering a playfully meta spin on the show's usual approach to small-screen horror. Sadly, while quite creative at times, this once promising twist does eventually devolve into the same old mix of superficial gore and increasingly messy plotting that AHS has become infamous for, resulting in a season that is somehow both one of the show's strongest and weakest entries at the same time.
Initially structured in the style of a true-crime supernatural documentary series dubbed My Roanoke Nightmare, the first half of the season focuses on a terrifying haunting in a North Carolina farmhouse. As talking head interviews are provided with the survivors, Matt (Andre Holland) and Shelby (Lily Rabe), we are also treated to reenactment sequences with actors (portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sarah Paulson) playing their parts in the show within the show, revealing the nearly fatal encounter they had with a malevolent spirit known as The Butcher (Kathy Bates).
These first five episodes are pretty solid on their own, using the faux-documentary conceit to offer a slightly new take on the series' usual assortment of bloody scares. Having the "real" characters elaborate on the events while we witness the actors playing them out in typical American Horror Story style creates an extra layer to the storytelling. And though the origin behind the creation of the evil spirits and the reasons leading to the Roanoke colony's disappearance end up being disappointingly generic, this first arc offers a fairly satisfying ghost story with characters that we actually grow to care about.
Midway through the season, however, the writers mix things up yet again -- MINOR SPOILER ALERT -- transitioning to a follow-up faux reality show that sees Matt and Shelby return to the house along with the cast who played them and the other characters in the reenactment show. As the couple and their Hollywood counterparts all hole themselves up in the deadly mansion, hidden cameras and smartphones are used to capture all the ensuing carnage giving the concluding episodes a found-footage aesthetic.
This twist actually starts off rather brilliantly, following the reality show's producer (Cheyenne Jackson) as he gets all the cast and crew together to return to the house. It's at this point that we get to see the characters who starred in the reenactment as themselves for the first time, and it's fun to see how different their actor personalities are from the roles they played in the My Roanoke Nightmare show within the show (I know, it's a little confusing). Likewise, the filmmakers also use these meta aspects to offer some snarky satire on superficial celebrity culture and the reality TV business, adding a darkly comedic vibe to the growing death count.
But while this new direction shows a lot of promise early on, the last few episodes quickly devolve into repetitive torture porn gore, trading any shred of creativity in for mostly mindless bloodshed and haphazard storytelling. A few character revelations quickly ruin any goodwill the audience may have initially had for the protagonists, and soon we're just left with a group of terrible people having terrible things done to them by other terrible people -- living or otherwise.
At its best, American Horror Story: Roanoke is one of the show's most original and inventive seasons, using its meta-fictional structure to play with audience expectations. At its worst, however, the show continues to emphasize its most problematic traits, losing sight of interesting story and character developments in favor of distressingly sloppy plotting and meaningless carnage. There are moments of genuine creativity here on par with superior season's like Murder House and Asylum, but the once fresh reality show twist ultimately rots into another mediocre entry in the show's decaying canon.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
20th Century Fox presents American Horror Story: Roanoke in a 3-Disc set. The ten episodes are spread across three BD-50 discs. After some skippable trailers, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A coded. No digital HD redemption code is included.
The video is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Stylized to mimic the aesthetic of a true-crime docu-drama and a hidden camera reality show, the image quality is a bit inconsistent but the lower grade material is understandable given the filmmakers' intentions.
The reenactment footage that makes up the brunt of the show's first half looks similar to previous seasons of the series with strong clarity, depth, and fine details, highlighting every nook and cranny in the eerie haunted house setting and every terrified expression on the actors' faces. Colors are also nicely saturated and contrast is balanced well. With that said, blacks can veer toward a slightly noisy blue shade in some darker scenes. Likewise, there is a hint of false contouring visible in the background during some of the talking head interview sequences. Quality becomes a bit more uneven when the season shifts to the found footage reality show format, however, mixing high quality shots with some noticeably lower grade footage from some of the hidden camera and smartphone recordings, complete with noise, pixelation, and other intentionally visible artifacts. While this footage doesn't lead to a particularly impressive video presentation, it fits in perfectly with the show's intended style.
Due to the deliberately low quality footage used in several scenes, American Horror Story: Roanoke is actually a pretty tricky title to grade with a traditional star rating. At the end of the day, the transfer itself is more or less authentic to the source -- even if the season's second half isn't always very pretty to look at.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, and Spanish. Unlike the uneven video quality, this is actually one of the show's livelier mixes with some effectively spooky design work.
Dialogue mostly comes in clean and clear, but I did detect some minor edginess in the highs. Helping to enhance the show's creepy atmosphere, the soundstage bustles with appropriate ambience, spreading footsteps, buzzing flies, fluttering wings, and rustling winds around the room. Directionality is also used well, sending ominous knocks, passing cars, and other effects to the left and right when called for. Likewise, surround activity adds an extra sense of unease during key instances, including a scene where teeth rain down from the sky in all directions and another sequence where a ghostly voice circles the listener. LFE also kicks in nicely during aggressive music cues and tenser moments.
Expanding the show's unsettling tone, the audio mix does a good job of creating a haunting mood.
The Paley Center for Media: Q&A with Cast and Creative Team from PaleyFest 2017 (HD, 30 min) – Presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, this is a lively Q&A with the cast and crew. The participants discuss their approach to the season, casting, building the creepy house set, the logistics of working with so many cameras, Angela Basset's direction, and Kathy Bates' propensity for weird accents.
American Horror Story: Roanoke Promos (HD, 3 min) - Here we get a series of promos that offered hints at different possible themes for the sixth season before the Roanoke setting was finally revealed.
American Horror Story: Roanoke initially offers an interesting twist on the show's usual structure, but the season ends up regressing into empty gore and sloppy storytelling. Though the video transfer features a mix of high and low-quality material, this choice fits in well with the intentional hidden camera style of the show's second half. And thankfully, the audio mix is appropriately creepy. Supplements are on the slim side, but the included Q&A session offers some amusing insights. At times on par with the show's best seasons and at times just as bad as its worst, this is an uneven season of TV that offers just enough creativity to make it worthwhile.