American Horror Story: Cult review post-election terror in Trump-inspired new season

The seventh installment of Ryan Murphys horror anthology series begins on election night and proceeds as a messy but gripping document of political paranoia in the wake of the 2016 election

Like some presidential campaigns, television empires are often built on some deliberate alchemy of camp and hyperbole, a certain shrewd sense of the zeitgeist. So it makes sense, in a world where the whole glob of pop cultures become inexorably coupled with the fretful politics of today, that small-screen emperor Ryan Murphy would so nakedly marry the two in the new season of American Horror Story, titled Cult, the first episode of which begins on the same night our own American horror story did: November 8th, 2016.

In the past decade or so, Murphy and his frequent sidekicks Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear have come to preside, like Shonda Rhimes at ABC and Dick Wolf at NBC, over a vast network of television shows, each of which bears the mark of Murphys distinct taste for pomp and dramaturgy. Murphy laid the first brick with Nip/Tuck, a delightfully over-the-top series about a pair of twisted cosmetic surgeons, and after that he and Falchuk made Glee, a then-radical musical series that often smartly turned high-school heartbreak and identity politics into a campy chorus of social justice.

But Murphy really hit his stride by producing anthology shows, which stick with just one story for an entire season, assuring that his penchant for glut and excess wouldnt come to take its inevitable toll; more than once Murphy has made terrific pilots and then failed, always in the grandest of ways, to land the plane.

And so began the 51-year-olds most prolific patch of filmmaking, a corpus that includes American Horror Story, now in its seventh season, American Crime Story, which debuted in 2016 and is scheduled to return in 2018, and Feud, which premiered earlier this year and will also have its second season in 2018.

The newest installment of AHS opens with a scene thats familiar despite my best attempts not to relive it. Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards, a married couple played by Murphy muse Sarah Paulson and The Newsroom vet Alison Pill, are watching MSNBC as the election returns roll in. For a brief moment it appears the country is about to elect its first woman president, but Ally says she wont believe a thing until she hears it from Rachel Maddow herself.

Elsewhere, a blue-haired recluse named Kai Anderson (Evan Peters, another Murphy favorite) awaits the results on Fox News. Pennsylvania goes Mr. Trumps way, as does Michigan, where the events of this season are set. Florida seals the deal, and Kai, before putting cheetos in a blender and smearing the dust across his face, thrusts his crotch toward the television screen while chanting U.S.A. Ally, whom Paulson plays with the collective distress and consternation of the millions who marched on the nations capitol in January, stares at the screen, frozen. Oh God, Ivy, she says. Whats going to happen to Merrick Garland?!

The election results send Ally, and the small suburban town of Brookfield Heights, into a tailspin of anxiety and derangement. She calls Trumps election a blip, a temporary intifada, but everything around her soon accrues horrifically totemic value: clowns, cheese, grapefruit, and pig meat, appearing in hallucinatory spasms as largely inanimate reminders of the presidents orange-tinted scourge.

Its unsurprising, given Murphys theatrical sensibilities, that the reactions to Trumps victory are characterized by opposites Ally and Kai, one a fragile and frightful leftist, the other an eldritch lone wolf exalting in the insurgent chaos of Trumps victory. That theres virtually no political middle ground campifies the central satire of American Horror Storys new season, which takes less interest in Trump or Clinton than it does in cheekily lampooning our age of political paranoia. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man, Kai, who assaults a group of migrant workers with a urine-filled condom, remarks in a ham-handed monologue before the city council.

Sarah
Sarah Paulson as Ally Mayfair-Richards in the latest installment of American Horror Story: Cult Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/FX Networks

Some of the writing is caricature-like – Ally tells Kai she wants to build bridges, not walls; other characters mention Etsy addictions and trigger warnings – but most of it works in service of the kind of comic horror Murphy aims for. Harrison Wilton (Billy Eichner), as the new occupant of the spooky home across the street from the Mayfair-Richards, is pitch-perfect. He and Leslie Grossmans Meadow keep a bee colony in their backyard; theyre also massive Nicole Kidman fans whove acquired, amongst a lofty stash of firearms purchased during the Obama administration, the pistol she used in Cold Mountain. Billie Lourd, as Kais companion and Ally and Ivys new nanny, is also fantastic as she creepily brainwashes the Mayfair-Richards young son with Twisty the Clown figurines and pulp lit.

As with past seasons of AHS, specifically Asylum and Hotel, details are abundant, menacing, and often deliberately symbolic: the phobia-strewn Ally, who runs a local restaurant with her wife, is startled by a hunk of coral in her therapists (Cheyenne Jackson) office; and in the pilot, when Ally has a tense stare-down with a MAGA-hat-wearing clerk at the local supermarket, she imagines shes being chased around the store by a pack of ghastly clowns.

Whether or not the clowns are actually there is a question answered later in the season. But it doesnt make much of a difference. If they arent, as Ivy claims, then Paulsons Ally is the personification of liberal paranoia, the upper-middle-class white lady who borrows her neighbors gun to defend against some imaginary menace. And if they are there, then its a real American horror story after all. Either way, the new season of AHS, a fun if scatterbrained document of the times, tells the tale of a provincial town enveloped in chaos, where madmen run wild. To some, they look like clowns, but to others, theyre heroes.

  • American Horror Story: Cult starts on FX on 5 September at 10 and in the UK on Fox on 8 September at 10

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/sep/05/american-horror-story-cult-review-post-election-terror-in-trump-inspired-new-season

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