In its earlier years, there was something undeniably seductive about the brash build-up and eventised premiere of an American Horror Story season. Ryan Murphy’s gory, goofy anthology would afford much-deserved screen-time to women who had been starved of it elsewhere, from Jessica Lange to Angela Bassett to Kathy Bates, slick, artfully deranged campaigns would play a long game with fans in a way that had previously been restricted to the big screen and even casual viewers would wonder just how far each new iteration would push TV boundaries.
But its sheen dulled over time as Murphy’s troupe of actors started to lose its major names, writers started to run out of interesting themes and that once pungent shock value started to grow tired, his relentless prodding more easily swatted away. Interest has once again been piqued however by the 12th season, bringing Kim Kardashian into the fold, a similar level of poppy “but can she?” curiosity that came with Lady Gaga’s involvement in season five. While Kardashian’s acting career is unlikely to follow a similar Hollywood trajectory, (unless Bradley Cooper is a secret AHS superfan) she’s surprisingly fun in an albeit slight role. The problematic reality mogul plays the catty publicist to Emma Roberts’s Oscar-hungry actor, the two easily operating in a world adjacent to their own, in a Rosemary’s Baby-aping setup.
While previous seasons of the show have started with a simple idea or setting and expanded out, this one, hilariously titled Delicate (a word no one has ever used in the same sentence as the words American Horror Story) takes inspiration from a recent novel, Danielle Rollins’s Delicate Condition. It gives the show more of a focus than usual, one of its biggest problems usually being its total lack, telling the story of Anna (Roberts), cautiously excited about her latest round of IVF, assisted by New York’s most in-demand fertility specialist (the anthology regular Denis O’Hare). But the treatment comes along with visions, nightmares, paranoia and the distinct feeling that someone is watching her.
Pregnancy is not exactly an untapped experience within the horror genre, if anything it might be a little overtapped (2021’s False Positive was one of the more recent thankless attempts to try and update Roman Polanski’s much-updated thriller) but it gives a show obsessed with extravagant iconography a full playground at its disposal. The actor turned playwright turned screenwriter Halley Feiffer and the documentarian turned TV director Jessica Yu, along with an over-eager production design team, all turn the dial up on invasive imagery, toying with body horror tropes, as Anna starts to question what’s being put inside her.
It’s a bit more muted than other season premieres, playing more as sleek thriller rather than gonzo horror, which might disappoint the hardcore fanbase but it makes it more accessible, and far less annoying, to the rest. One of the show’s biggest problems has been its failure to justify the format, horror struggling to be maintained over 10 hours but as a more character-focused mystery, it could work better, later episodes yet to be seen. Like the more recent updates of the Rosemary’s Baby template, it briefly modernises the tension with a #BelieveWomen awareness of how medicine has habitually downplayed or diminished the fears and pains of women, especially during pregnancy. Rollins’s book explored this in more detail and while the first episode is light on anything particularly probing, it’s at least present, words such as gaslighting and hysterical yet to be used but placing bets on their inclusion within the next few weeks would be wise.
There’s a trash appeal to the season’s celebrity angle from Andy Cohen playing Andy Cohen in the premiere to the very casting of Kardashian and while it’s Roberts who leads, ably as ever, it’s the reality star who draws the most attention. It’s partly just the lurid novelty of it all but crucially she doesn’t embarrass herself, handling the script’s silly one-liners (in her first appearance, she barks at someone to suck her clit) and using her long-time relationship to the camera to foster a new form of screen presence, brassier and bigger than the other. Delicate might not be as kitschy as seasons past but don’t tell that to her.
American Horror Story: Delicate airs on FX on Wednesday and on Hulu on Thursdays in the US with a UK date to be revealed