In February 2017, Ryan Murphy confirmed that the next season of American Horror Story would be set in the aftermath of the American presidential election, dealing with the fallout of Trump’s victory. It was a tantalising concept; one that offered a lot of promise, but in turn a lot of risk. AHS: Cult could prove to be a deeply incisive series, entirely in tune with the moment – but it also could have been an uninspiring mess, reaching to comment on a controversial issue far too early.
Obviously, after a single episode, it’s difficult to comment on the entire series; there’s every likelihood that the remainder of the episodes will be a departure from the first, casting the programme in a very different light. After the series premier, though, it appears as though AHS: Cult has fallen into the latter category.
There’s a struggle, almost immediately, for the series to decide what it wants to be about. Opening as it does with dual perspectives on the election is a clever way to quickly establish the characters, but it also makes apparent one of the series’ primary flaws. Each character, in effect, is written as a parody of how the ‘other side’ views them; Sarah Paulson plays Ally Mayfair-Richards, the embodiment of the stereotypical liberal elite, while Evan Peters plays Kai Anderson, an exaggerated caricature of a basement dwelling 4chan user. In a way, there’s something almost cartoonish about it all – much of the episode wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Saturday Night Live skit. Indeed, Paulson’s character feels almost directly lifted from this specific sketch; meanwhile, Peters’ is played in such an aggressively exaggerated fashion it’s difficult to take him seriously at all.
At odds with this all are the clowns, which appear at varying moments across the episode; each time, they feel rather out of place. It gives the impression that the programme, not really knowing how to be scary, went for an old stalwart – clowns with knives. Up to a point, they’re effective, presented as a hallucination symptomatic of Paulson’s character’s increasing neurosis; at others, though, the programme is reliant simply on the largely superfluous appearance of murderous clowns. Increasingly it begs the question of just how these clowns relate to the post-election horror that was promised.
Taken together, this gives the impression of a programme that doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be, or what it wants to say. There’s a satirical undercurrent to it, certainly; there’s little other way to take the scene where Paulson’s character reveals she voted for Jill Stein, or the flippancy with which her counselling sessions are treated. A tendency towards hysterics is perhaps a symptom of an exaggerated, stylised programme, no doubt one that contributes to the heightened atmosphere of horror; here, though, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that everything’s just being treated like a bit of a joke.
Ultimately, American Horror Story: Cult doesn’t bring the grounded horror it promised – or at least, not in its first episode. Perhaps subsequent instalments will pick up on the full potential of this premise; certainly, there’s potential for an intelligent horror that portrays the fear and division of America’s increasingly polarised political climate. If the show does manage to succeed in this regard, it could prove to be something quite memorable.
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