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American Horror Story Is Dying, And Only The Return Of Jessica Lange Can Save It

Sometimes, it feels as if the shambling corpse that is "American Horror Story" will never take a dirt nap. 

It's been quite an uneven run for the FX Network lynchpin, but it's hard to ignore the fact that it's definitely seen better days. The series arguably peaked with the messy but generally satisfying (and memorably campy) "American Horror Story: Coven." Follow-up entries like "Freak Show," "Roanoke" and "Hotel" were ambitious but wildly uneven ventures, and "Apocalypse" seems to solely exist to correct the biggest mistake "Coven" made, by saving Misty Day (Lily Rabe) from Hell. "Cult," meanwhile, had strong performances but feels outdated already. And one would think that the shorter run of "Double Feature" would have saved itself from the show's worst tendencies, but somehow, splitting the season in two resulted in two unsatisfying and undercooked halves.

Only "1984" and "NYC" worked, and both have had their detractors. The less said about the wildly uneven and largely forgotten "American Horror Stories," the better. These diminishing returns have resulted in a dip in ratings. While it's been customary for the show to slowly lose momentum over a season, "Double Feature" and "NYC" have drawn series-low numbers, and some episodes failed to attain a million viewers. We're a long way from the 8 million-plus viewer peaks of "Roanoke," that's for sure.

These are the symptoms of a dying show. What's the missing ingredient in most of these outings? It's actually pretty simple: the talents of Oscar and Emmy winner Jessica Lange, who anchored the show's first four seasons. 

No one plays a sympathetic monster like Jessica Lange

Jessica Lange was the "American Horror Story" franchise's grand dame for its first four seasons. During that time she brought to life four completely different women who stood distinct, and around whom each new storyline turned. 

The first season, "Murder House," featured the envious Constance Langdon, whose quest for vengeance (and a healthy child) results in death, mayhem ... and eventually, the apocalypse. Then there's the sympathetic Sister Jude of "Asylum," whose deep guilt and grief over causing the supposed death of a girl in a car accident consumes her and leads her, unwillingly, into her vocation. No one can forget her in "Coven" as the in-charge Supreme Fiona Goode, arguably Lange's most fearlessly wicked performance on the show. And she rounded out her work on the series with her most sympathetic — Elsa Mars, head of a crumbling circus in "Freak Show."

Has anyone else on this show — aside from Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and perhaps Lily Rabe — managed to bring to life such a high number of memorable creations? And none of them (except for perhaps Paulson) has managed to anchor the show so strongly, and with such sympathetic and yet repulsive performances. More importantly, each of Lange's women is distinctly monstrous and flawed in different ways, but vulnerable and oddly loving. The truth is there's no one in the show's rotating cast who has ever been quite as memorable as Lange. 

Jessica Lange's AHS villains were the best ones

Since Jessica Lange exited the show after "American Horror Story: Freak Show" wrapped, Ryan Murphy has tried to center other seasons of the series around other semi-sympathetic heroes and heroines. But few actors have drawn the plaudits Lange has for their work. 

Worse, memorable characters have been thin on the ground since "Roanoke." Sure, "Hotel" had the self-possessed Countess Elizabeth Johnson (Lady Gaga), the strong-willed Ramona Royale (Angela Bassett) and the ebullient Liz Taylor (Denis O'Hare). "1984" had the hilariously wicked Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) and the murderous but stylish Montana Duke (Billie Lourd). But have any of them become popular figures in the public's memory in the same way as Fiona, Constance, and Sister Jude? Can you quote them with ease? Do you ever think about them when you aren't watching them?  Can you even name any character from "Cult" or " Double Feature?" 

The sad truth is that without Lange's work, "American Horror Story" has begun to slowly circle the drain. The show's devotees expect camp, quotable lines, and bloody deaths, and its most recent seasons have barely ... well, cut it, in those departments. Lange is excellent at providing all three in spades. Her performances also provide nuance and gravitas that the show desperately needs whenever a plot point derails or a terrible Ryan Murphy ending undersells a whole season's potential. 

Few characters have attained similar levels of cool or complex. Zach Villa's take on Richard Ramirez got close, but it's hard to ignore the fact that he's, you know, playing a real-life serial killer whose crimes still impact his victim's living family members.

Jessica Lange's got a busy career, but more AHS could do it no harm

Jessica Lange has enjoyed quite a big career, and it's pretty understandable why she decided to move along to other ventures, citing the half-year chunk of time one has to set aside to rehearse and act in a single season of the show. Since leaving "American Horror Story" behind, she has appeared in multiple films, such as "Marlowe" and an upcoming remake of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," in which she co-stars with Ed Harris. Her most prominent TV credit since then has been in another Ryan Murphy production: she portrayed Joan Crawford in his FX miniseries "Feud: Bette and Joan." She also has another project with Murphy coming up soon — a series for Netflix in which she will portray Marlene Dietrich.

That does provide some hope for "American Horror Story" fans that Lange might return someday. She's definitely keeping in contact with Murphy, and definitely willing to keep working with him. She also has already come back in a guest starring capacity for the "Apocalypse" season, to give life to Constance once more. 

So, fans of the show should keep hope in their hearts, and cross their fingers. After all, Lange's very presence could be the only thing to jumpstart this corpse back to life.