Analysis: Why ‘American Crime Story’ is so much better than ‘American Horror Story’

The requirements of presenting material based on a true story imposes a degree of discipline that “Horror Story” has lacked from the get-go. And while the show doesn’t hide its gruesome marching orders — “horror” is in the title, after all — the fact we’re up to a 10th season might explain why Murphy and his collaborators keep trying to outdo themselves, in occasionally hard-to-stomach ways.

While a lot of people obviously enjoy the show, “American Horror Story’s” latest installment, subtitled “Double Feature,” is an especially grisly iteration of the formula. If anything, the vampire-tinged plot — with writers essentially selling their souls and becoming bloodsuckers (not a subtle metaphor) in their hunger for success — reflects the franchise’s worst instincts, both in its derivative touches and gratuitous gore, particularly with a subplot that involves the daughter of the central couple.

“American Horror Story’s” has a questionable history of combining sexual imagery and violence in past editions, as it constantly pushes content boundaries. Adding a young child (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong) to the throat slashing and blood drinking feels icky in a different but equally gratuitous manner.

As noted, “American Crime Story” represents an unlikely shingle for “Impeachment,” certainly compared to the high-profile murder cases chronicled by the first two installments, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” But all three of those projects represent a vast improvement over the best of that “Horror Story” has to offer.
“Impeachment” has garnered mixed reviews, with some criticizing its lurid tone, which seemingly misses the point of why the producers and network were drawn to the subject matter in the first place. Part of Murphy’s brilliance has been in selecting attention-getting, easily promotable concepts — in this case, enlisting Monica Lewinsky as a producer, and inspiring bold-faced names like Matt Drudge help publicize it because he (or rather, Billy Eichner as him) is featured in it.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” might have sounded like a no-brainer, but the execution and topnotch performances lived up to the hype. The subject matter wasn’t as good in “Gianni Versace” but it was still plenty watchable, with a showy role for Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, who murdered the fashion designer in 1997.

Murphy’s infatuation with presenting the underbelly of glamorous worlds like Hollywood and fashion has yielded mixed results, though it’s worth noting that even there, the work has been better when it’s restrained by reality. Compare “Hollywood,” his alternate-reality Netflix limited series, with the more historically grounded “Feud: Bette and Joan,” his ode to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Despite his move to Netflix, Murphy has remained a prolific provider for FX, which recently announced two “American” offshoots of his anthology series: “American Love Story,” focusing on the relationship between John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette; and “American Sports Story,” about the tragedy surrounding football star Aaron Hernandez, which could easily be presented under the “Crime Story” banner.

In an age of abundant content, such high-profile stories break through the clutter, and true crime especially so. Whatever “Impeachment’s” shortcomings, though, comparing it with “Double Feature” illustrates that not all shows with “American” in the title are created equal, and that “horror” too often serves not just a license to kill, but the unfortunate temptation to engage in overkill.

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