Fox (NASDAQ:FOX)/FX's American Horror Story: Coven returned this week with its 10th episode, The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks. The episode attracted 3.49 million viewers -- down from the 5.54 million viewers its gruesome season premiere attracted, but still the highest-rated cable program for Wednesday nights.
Unlike many other shows on TV, which lose their luster after the first season, American Horror Story's quality improves with every subsequent season.
What makes American Horror Story: Coven -- from Glee and Nip/Tuck creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk -- such a treat to watch? Let's take a look at 4 key things that the show absolutely nails.
1. Self-contained seasons with recurring actors
American Horror Story stays fresh every season by making every 12- to 13-episode season a self-contained story arc. There are no season finale cliffhangers.
Instead, every season of American Horror Story resembles a 13-episode-long installment of The Twilight Zone, in which recurring actors from the previous seasons return as different characters. Each season focuses on a well-known horror motif -- a murder house, an asylum, and witches -- and expands upon it.
By focusing on recurring actors rather than recurring characters, the show's writers are free to kill off characters during a season and allow them to come back in the next season as someone else. That unique quality of the show also gives the cast a chance to play a wider variety of characters.
This strategy of self-contained seasons keeps the show fresh, letting new viewers hop on and off between seasons while retaining a serialized format. Such a format, also seen in shows like AMC's (NASDAQ:AMCX) Breaking Bad and Disney (NYSE: DIS)/ABC's Lost, unlocks deeper storytelling opportunities than the procedural "monster of the week" format that other shows follow.
2. It doesn't pull its punches
American Horror Story's writers have never shied away from controversy.
In the first season, a mother punishes her daughter, who has Down's syndrome, by locking her in a room of mirrors. In the second season, a patient who may or may not be the real Anne Frank gets lobotomized by a Nazi doctor.
In the third season, the show tops all that madness off by having the infamous Madame LaLaurie bleed her slaves dry for their blood's supposed anti-aging properties.
It would have been easy to go over the edge with any of these situations -- FX's own Nip/Tuck was a prime example of taking things too far in its later episodes -- but American Horror Story manages to consistently push the envelope without bursting it.
3. Top-notch performers
The main reason that American Horror can stay classy in even the most gruesome situations is simple -- it has top-notch talent on board.
Jessica Lange's chameleon-like changes between a mysterious neighbor, a nun, and a queen witch are reasons enough to watch this show season after season.
Other recurring cast members -- such as Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, and Lily Rabe -- are just as talented, shifting effortlessly between their seasonal characters. Series newcomers, such as Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, also leave a lasting impression with inspired performances (as seen in the picture below).
Therefore, American Horror is a series with an utterly absurd plot that is glued firmly together by its highly experienced cast. It's the polar opposite of some other shows, where a feasible plot is turned to mush by untalented actors.
4. Stunning cinematography
Last but not least, the show's cinematography and camera techniques are truly amazing.
From long character trailing shots, fisheye shots, to upside down 360-degree shots, cinematographer Michael Goi creates a surreal atmosphere that fits the show like a glove.
Goi uses some old school cinematography techniques to create the unique look that now defines the series -- combining film stocks from the 1940s to the 1960s (rather than digital filters) to create the correct look for each time period.
Breaking Bad was another show that looked stunning, thanks to cinematographer Michael Slovis. Both Goi and Slovis know how to use the camera to define their genres -- something that plenty of mainstream shows overlook.
The end result is that American Horror Story and Breaking Bad look far more polished and suited for a theatrical release than most other mainstream TV shows.
What does American Horror Story mean for Fox?
American Horror Story: Coven could boost revenue at Fox's crucial cable network segment this quarter. During Fox's first quarter, which concluded on Sept. 30, its cable networks segment (which includes the FX Networks) posted a 12% year-over-year gain in revenue to $2.8 billion -- which accounted for 40% of the company's total top line.
Fox stated that advertising revenue at these domestic cable channels rose 6% year-over-year, thanks to double-digit growth at the FX Networks, RSNs, and National Geographic Channels. The network didn't break down costs and revenue by individual shows, however.
Considering that American Horror Story: Coven has been the top cable show on Wednesday nights and that it is one of FX's four flagship shows (along with Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and Archer), it's likely that the show will remain a strong source of advertising revenue for Fox. Coven premiered on Oct. 9, so investors should watch Fox's second-quarter cable revenue closely when it reports its earnings on Feb. 3.
Most importantly, American Horror Story boasted a huge 3.8 rating among 18 to 34 year old women last season, making the show a major target for advertisers looking for a large female audience.
A final thought
In closing, American Horror Story is a rare, unique gem on TV, where dull, by-the-numbers procedurals have become all too common.
Thanks to its self-contained seasons, I believe that the show will stay fresh and its top-notch cast and crew will continue finding new ways to shock and disturb us.
After all, the next season is already rumored to take place in a circus -- and who doesn't love horrifying clowns?
Fool contributor Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.