'American Horror Story: Cult' says Trump and clowns are equally scary

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

American Horror Story franchise creator Ryan Murphy has the clever idea to begin the latest, seventh installment of the show with what was to millions of Americans a real-life horror show: election night 2016, as citizens watched it dawn on cable news anchors that Donald Trump was going to become president. In the new American Horror Story: Cult, the stand-ins for liberal reaction to the news are Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill as a married couple who are extravagantly upset. Paulson’s Ally won’t even believe the election result “until Rachel Maddow says it — she’s the only one I trust.” The Sept. 5 premiere also shows us the opposite reaction, from a grimly obsessed-looking young man, played by AHS regular Evan Peters, who smears his face with crushed Cheetos and exults in the triumph of Trump: “The revolution has begun!” he yells.

In the past, AHS has located terror in places like a haunted house, a circus, a hotel, and an asylum. Now the terror is in the behavior of the person next door. Ryan and show co-creator Brad Falchuk fill the screen with characters who are constantly arguing with each other, flinging accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, political correctness, and white privilege — the insistence that, as someone remarks here, “everything is somebody else’s fault” — to suggest that civilized society, in America at least, is spiraling out of control. And, oh yes: There’s a killer clown cult roaming the neighborhood, murdering people.

By attaching social satire to the usual AHS scary storytelling, Ryan and Falchuk seem to be upping the stakes in this installment. Since the presidential campaign, many commentators have described newly intense retrogressive public behaviors as things Trump has “unleashed” upon the country, but AHS makes that unleashing literal, presenting us with marauding bands of killers in whiteface, set loose to foment bloody mayhem. The show bursts with clever casting and concepts. Billie Lourd plays a babysitter who moans about needing “trigger warnings.” Paulson and Pill’s new neighbors are played by Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman (the latter from Murphy’s old show Popular) — they’re busybody beekeepers with a complicated sex life.

After a few episodes, however, much of the characterization in Cult starts to seem cartoonish and overdrawn. The first time Pill’s Ivy scolds Paulson’s Ally for voting for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton, it’s funny; by the time the subject is raised again in the third episode, it just seems tiresome. Then too, Murphy and Falchuk are making clear parallels to Charles Manson’s 1960s thrill-kill cult with the home-invasion style of Cult’s clowns, and, while certainly scary, this material doesn’t really track narratively with all the political stuff, at least in the early episodes. (We have been promised, later in the season, Lena Dunham as Valerie Solanas, the politically minded woman who shot Andy Warhol, in a subplot I am looking forward to and dreading simultaneously.)

In other words, this is the usual AHS/Ryan Murphy pop-culture potpourri. (It’s also a bad week for clowns, what with Stephen King’s super-evil one popping up soon in the feature film It.) Murphy has tried, in recent interviews, to insist that Cult is aimed at both Democrats and Republicans, and that it isn’t anti-Trump. But there is never any doubt that the mixture of fear, rage, and self-righteousness we see onscreen here isn’t just a slight exaggeration of what’s going on in the current culture. Unlike in previous seasons of AHS, the scariest stuff here emanates not from monsters but from the citizen down the street.

American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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