American Horror Story has depicted plenty of deaths during its run on FX, and the show’s fifth season, “Hotel,” which wrapped up in January, seemed to augur the most consequential death yet: the show’s own. Guest star Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe, but the story jury-rigged around her had grown bloated, with a meandering plot that included an army of child vampires and an undead Rudolph Valentino. Ratings were good enough to ensure another season, but the franchise seemed exhausted. Which makes American Horror Story: Roanoke one of the most surreal and exciting developments of the TV year. This sixth installment has at every turn delighted with its commitment to gore–and to surprise, giving new life to a show that felt like a lumbering member of the undead.
Early episodes of the new season, which debuted on Sept. 14, depict Shelby and Matt Miller (Lily Rabe and André Holland), a couple who buy a home near North Carolina’s “lost colony” of Roanoke, abandoned by 16th century settlers. The Millers are soon haunted by the earliest, and most violent, Americans. None of this was known to viewers beforehand. Nor was the framing device in which the tale is revealed: a faux true-crime show, My Roanoke Nightmare, featuring both the “real” couple and the re-enactors (Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.) playing them. After years of increasing buzz for the series, FX went self-consciously quiet for Season 6. Everything from the casting to the title was kept from fans until it began.
With AHS facing competition from other cable, broadcast and streaming series, refusing to give even a hint was a big bet. Lately, shows tend to promote themselves with increasingly elaborate trailers to lure as many viewers as possible. The twist in the pilot of NBC’s This Is Us, for instance, was revealed in some of the coverage leading into the fall season. The impact was blunted, but it helped make the show a hit.
AHS‘s ongoing twists, like the meeting of the real couple and the re-enactors for a new set of horrors, have felt genuinely jarring. The show-within-a-show conceit has been endlessly rewarding, running the gamut from media satire to raw terror. After AHS pushed the limits of just how crazy it could get, the simplicity of gut-level scares is bringing it back.
That Paulson and Gooding–having recently played prosecutor and defendant on AHS creator Ryan Murphy’s masterly The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story–are part of the cast adds a frisson of fun for TV diehards and ups the ante for a show known for the quality of its acting. When Paulson and Gooding scream, our blood curdles all the more.
Gooding’s presence lends the show its greatest punch. Roanoke has, so far, been the story of an interracial couple who face down the ghosts of America’s origins. I wouldn’t call it subtle–no project with Kathy Bates playing a screaming butcher from the 1500s could be. Yet its success in weaving meaningful ideas about what it means to be American into a horror tale demonstrates just how much the show’s artifice needed to be stripped away. Now that each bend in the plot arrives unheralded, it’s all the better. Everyone knows the most cathartic terrors come when you’re in the dark.
This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.