I have not watched American Horror Story in a few seasons (I think Lady Gaga’s first season was the last time I checked in). To be honest, with the exception of the first, I’ve never actually finished an entire season of American Horror Story. Every year, I am intrigued by whatever premise Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck have cooked up, and I get sucked in by the visuals in the teasers, the promised themes, or whatever new actor Murphy has added to his rotation of regulars.
But it always ends in disappointment. Sometimes, it will take four or five episodes, sometimes it only takes one or two, but invariably, I will bail because everything gets too Ryan Murphy. With one exception (The People vs. O.J. Simpson), it’s always the same, dating all the way back to Nip/Tuck.
I’m not sure why I thought this year would be different. Maybe it was because of the restraint he showed in American Crime Story. Or maybe it was Feud (although, to be honest, I didn’t finish that one, either). But mostly it was the election theme. Eight months into the Trump era, I thought by now someone would’ve already come up with a television show or a movie that truly captured the sense of anxiety we are all feeling. Maybe an Iñárritu-style movie with interweaving storylines that captures the real-life consequences of hiring a mad man as our President. Just anything, really, that makes us feel less alone, that can bring us together in our shared disillusionment.
Whatever American Horror Story: Cult is, however, it’s not the thing I have been hoping for. It’s just more Ryan Murphy being Ryan Murphy, which is to say that this season of AHS is a bunch of reductive bullshit that exploits election fears without providing any insights. Cult turns both sides — both sides — into bogeymen, and then throws some scary clowns into the Ryan Murphy trope blender with a few election-year bumper stickers and a shot of tequila, leaving a sort of a messy, incoherent Cheeto-paste of depravity and indifference.
Evan Peters is our Trump-supporting white guy, Kai Anderson. When Trump wins, he humps his television set, yells “USA! USA!” paints his face with Cheetos, and begins terrorizing people of color, because Trump’s victory has apparently given him the belief that — as a white guy — he is above the law. He fills a condom full of his own urine, tosses it at a group of Mexican construction workers, and ensures that he’s being taped when they beat the hell out of him so that he can vilify immigrants. Peters is sort of like Jared Leto’s Joker, if his Joker were really into Donald Trump and identity politics.
So, he’s the bad guy, right? Sure? But he’s also the most entertaining character in Cult, because on the other side is Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards, an insufferable conglomeration of the worst of all whiny, insufferable liberal stereotypes. She’s a wealthy lesbian restaurant owner who voted for Jill Stein as a protest vote, but still complains when CNN doesn’t add a trigger warning before announcing that Trump won the election. Trump’s victory heightens all of her phobias, of which she has many, but mostly it’s clowns because clowns are the fear du jour. Everywhere she goes, she sees scary clowns threatening her, or fucking in supermarket aisles, or attacking her. Meanwhile, there may or may not be actual clowns — being led by Kai Anderson — murdering those who would emasculate the white man.
But what does AHS: Cult say about our current political situation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Maybe that we’re all awful? That the Michigan lesbian worried that her adoption rights are going to be stripped away is just as bad as the white guy killing people of color because he believes Trump’s victory has given him a mandate to do so. It’s parody, but it’s bullshit parody with no actual message and a lot of false equivalencies. There’s more insight in a sequel of The Purge.
Beyond that, AHS: Cult is typical AHS fare: Same actors, same horror movie tropes rearranged into another season of compelling visual violence, and a few tone-deaf one-liners that would get destroyed on Twitter. It all smacks of nasty white privilege, a show written for the anxious masses by people up on their perch looking down upon the rest of us and judging us for our heightened states of emotion. I’m all for Hollywood weighing in on politics, but Jesus Christ: Say something substantive and meaningful. There’s a guy in the White House trying to deport hundreds of thousands of people, removing transgender people from the military, stripping away equal rights protections, ignoring civil rights violations, and pushing us to the brink of nuclear and/or Civil War. Don’t turn legitimate fears into horror movie tropes. It’s not the time, bro. Either get in the fight, or stay out of it, but don’t make a goddamn mockery of it. And for God’s sake, give Alison Pill’s character something to do other than placate her insane wife. Jesus, what a waste.