You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture.
By the end of August last year, we knew essentially everything to expect from “American Horror Story.” With more than a month until its premiere, the new installment would be called “Hotel” ― actually, we’d known that since Lady Gaga tweeted it in February. We’d seen multiple teaser trailers and received, via an Entertainment Weekly cover story, thorough character descriptions and photos from the gothic vampire soap. By the time “Hotel” arrived in October, Ryan Murphy had also dropped the opening credit sequence ― a highlight of any “AHS” season ― on YouTube. There were no real surprises left, except maybe the fact that “Hotel” wasn’t particularly good.
Then again, that wasn’t a surprise either. The quality of “American Horror Story” has dwindled each season, hitting a nadir with 2014’s flaccid “Freak Show.” But by the time this year’s edition launches on Sept. 14, assuming FX sticks to the plan its CEO announced last week at the Television Critics Association summer conference, we won’t know many specifics about Murphy’s latest menagerie of camp. FX has released a smattering of teasers, stating that most are decoys. Which one is real? You’ll have to tune in to find out.
Considering last year’s high-profile “AHS” information dump, what is this strategy? It’s pepper spray in the face of anticipation culture, where the marketing teams behind most mainstream movies and TV shows forecast success with long-lead campaigns previewing minutiae months in advance. Why wait to decide whether you like the new “Star Wars” characters when you can judge them based on a spread in Vanity Fair?
I, for one, am thrilled with FX’s tactic. “AHS” has nearly exhausted every chance to prove its ongoing worth, and entering the new season without many expectations is the unlikeliest choice since killing everyone off the first year and branding it an anthology series. The enigma has made fan speculation more fun, too. Will the theme revolve around the Roanoke Colony myth? The Charles Manson murders? Let’s count the clues ― or not! Despite quitting “Hotel” midway through and flirting with abandoning the series altogether, I now can’t wait to find out, in real time, what Murphy cooked up. Rarely does an established show provoke as much fervor once it’s been detailed across half a dozen magazines and websites all touting their own pre-season exclusives.
My dear friend and former HuffPost colleague Erin Whitney documented the surprise-release phenomenon over at Screen Crush earlier this month. “When a thing arrives unannounced, something magical happens,” Whitney wrote, days before the “AHS” strategy was revealed. “Entering the unknown calls upon our most basic instincts as we’re forced to engage with something on the spot, free of preconceived notions.”
At the moment, this marvel is primarily the domain of pop music. The key purveyor: Beyoncé, who dropped 2013’s “Beyoncé” and this year’s visual feast “Lemonade” with almost no warning. That exact strategy doesn’t work in film and television because studios and networks pay boatloads to acquire and distribute their content, making the marketing of said content essential to ensuring it finds an audience (aka a revenue stream). But even as digitalization shortens our collective attention spans (we’re down to eight seconds, y’all), the element of intrigue cannot be undervalued. In fact, given the current inundation of content, it may be more needed than ever. That intrigue is less organic after, say, a year of Kit Harington hair analysis signaling Jon Snow’s inevitable resurrection on “Game of Thrones.” (Spoiler alert? Nah.)
It’s understandable that early marketing has ballooned: Album sales are plunging, TV ratings are dwindling, box-office receipts are suffering, the publishing industry is in flux, Pokémon Go is the new frontier. The assumption is that heightened awareness equals a heftier cash flow.
But how many people who saw “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” did so because they were drawn to that #SadBatman photo that director Zack Snyder tweeted two years before the movie’s release? It’s impossible to measure, but logic would tell us the answer is, probably, none. For properties with built-in fan bases ― basically everything that’s considered popular nowadays ― there’s no need for a blitz that spoils so many key elements. If popular culture now thrives on franchises, reboots and streaming platforms instead of the original fare and traditional distribution that once packed theaters and cleaned out record stores, the least the industry can do is let us absorb content with a semblance of freshness.
I bet next month’s “Blair Witch” ― misleadingly billed as “The Woods” until Lionsgate revealed in July that is it actually a direct sequel to 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” ― will be a sizable hit, and more so because of the surprise factor. Apparently most Lionsgate employees didn’t even know the movie was being made.
Of course, not everything can become an all-out surprise. That gambit would lose its innovativeness if employed en masse. We’d just wake up every morning expecting a new album dropped on the internet’s doorstep, and the gasp factor would steadily dissolve. But look at “Suicide Squad,” for example. Given the steep revenue decline Warner Bros.’ supervillain assembly suffered during its second week in theaters, clearly most dedicated moviegoers had already decided whether they’d see it by the time the scathing reviews hit. Prior to that, I bet very few of them were swayed by Jared Leto’s green-haired Snapchats from last April or the Comic-Con panel that occurred last July or the Entertainment Weekly cover story that detailed the movie a month ahead of its release. By the time the public had actual access to the film, there was little left to wonder about, except whether the fuss was worth it. (It wasn’t.)
Bad things wouldn’t seem quite so bad if multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns didn’t blast away whatever shards of surprise remain, and good things might be able to maintain their momentum if they don’t arrive with as much precooked anticipation.
Look at “Stranger Things,” a show that received little advance press or cultural hoopla before Netflix released its inaugural season in July. It is inarguably one of summer’s biggest hits ― and, if these stats are to be believed, it’s also Netflix’s third-most popular show ever. Why? Partly because no one knew quite what to expect, so the online water cooler was left to its own devices. (For Netflix comparison’s sake, “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” already seem to incite less buzz than they did in previous go-rounds.)
Whatever the reasoning, I applaud FX for approaching the sixth “American Horror Story” installment thusly. If the season is disappointing, it won’t be because the show didn’t live up to the glossy imagery that made it seem far more chic than it actually is. Instead, it will be a true measure of quality. It doesn’t take a total surprise to accomplish that ― it merely requires a little more mystery.