Nothing isn’t political in 2017. We watch television the same way we watch our fellow Americans, searching for hidden signals and revelatory telltales. Tim Allen’s Sitcom Canceled: Liberals To Blame? Uncle Frank Notably Quiet At Thanksgiving: Trump Voter? Our best and brightest have tried to explain the current state of affairs, how we got here, where we’re going. They have failed. So look now to American Horror Story, this decade’s funny-scary symphony of kitchen-sink national terror. The show is a political expert the way Doctor Frankenstein was a biology professor, but if we want to grasp the true meaning of our modern moment, we should maybe send a maniac to catch one.
The first scene of Cult, the seventh iteration of the FX anthology, is great – too great, maybe, so ecstatic that everything after feels sloggy, mission-drifted. It’s election day, 2016, in a small town in Michigan. Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) can’t believe what TV is telling them. They’re married, they own a restaurant, they live in a fine house: America might not be perfect, but it sure looks great for them. So they receive the tilting election results the way a city in a Roland Emmerich movie receives a giant wave. Donald Trump appears on their television, grinning, newly-Presidented, and the AHS soundtrack swells with hilarious terror.
Elsewhere, a strange blue-haired man-boy named Kai (Evan Peters) watches the same thing, has a different response. He doesn’t believe what he’s seeing, either. But it’s that burning-bush-talking-to-me kind of disbelief: The shock that the world is on your side, that your grand destiny has arrived. While Ally flails in terror in her good clean suburban house, Kai gropes his television, crotch-thrusting toward the screen, like someone trying to fornicate with the zeitgeist. It’s a rapturous crosscutting, Paulson’s agony and Peters’ ecstasy, as funny and freaky as anything the two actors have ever done on this show. (And remember: She was conjoined twins, he was a boy with amputated lobster hands, and they were in love.) Seek subtext if you desire. The joke is that they’re both crazy, and we all are, too.
It’s a dynamite opening. The episodes that follow are strange, circuitous, too anxious to really pursue that initial madness. Ally’s on edge, brought low by phobias that disappeared sometime around 2008. She’s scared of holes, see, and clowns: More on that later. She keeps meeting Kai, who’s meandering through town with his own strange purposes. In Cult‘s first episode, Kai gives a speech to the city council, advocating a hodge-podge rhetoric about the cultural importance of fear. Nothing he says makes sense, unless you’re watching the news.
Meanwhile, Ally and Ivy start to have personnel problems at their restaurant. New neighbors move in across the street, and they have bees. When their Hispanic nanny disappears – did she flee? was she captured? – they hire Winter (Billie Lourd), a coed still recovering emotionally from the election. Ally and Ivy have a son, and he’s reading a comic book about Twisty the Clown, and he keeps having nightmares about clowns, and there are killer clowns outside the house, and killer clowns inside the house.
Sorry, yes, what, right: clowns! Twisty (John Caroll Lynch) reappears from Freak Show, for no apparent reason beyond hysterical continuity. And there are more clowns, lingering in the shadows, with weird makeup and curiously potent strategies. The Twisty appearance is tonally destructive, like if Steven Spielberg decided midway through Bridge of Spies that Tom Hanks should blow up a shark. And I’m aware that “tonally destructive” might sound funny given how fervently American Horror Story cycles through film styles. Horror, comedy, mystery, domestic drama, romance, softcore erotica, spoof, satire: The show’s been all that and more. Asylum was the show’s best and most cohesive installment, with a run of episodes that belongs on any best-of-the-decade list, and even Asylum had Ian McShane as a crucifying Santa Claus.
Sometimes the excess is the point. That was certainly true of Hotel, the show’s high point for decadence, a 12-episode fantasia of serial killers and vampires and weird babies and Old Hollywood and bad parenting. Hotel featured a couple great performances and lots of nonsense, was built entirely on the encompassing theme that the Hotel Cortez was [Bill Murray in Tootsie voice] one nutty hotel! You could feel the wave crashing. Last year’s Roanoke represented something more stripped down, less Grand Guignol. The mockumentary style was constricting, and encouraged the show’s broadest meta-Hollywood gags. But it was also a throat-clearing moment for the show, more modest in scope. (One episode of Roanoke ran 38 minutes without commercials, whereas Hotel‘s runtimes could swell to 50 minutes or more.)
That continues in Cult, to a point. The colors are more subdued, the character dynamics initially more straightforward, the descent into madness presented like some everyday fact of modern life. But the first three episodes released by FX feel built around some unnecessary teases. It’s both unclear and obvious what the “cult” is, and the way the show buries those revelations is more annoying than exciting.
Cult is most convincingly a slow-burn portrait focused on Ally, and Paulson continues to be executive producer Ryan Murphy’s most convincing onscreen surrogate, somehow empowered and victimized all at once. But there’s a weird plot thing with her that happens in the early episodes, a weightless shock that spoils the satire with a harsh reality the show can’t begin to deal with. It’s a moment that involves the phrase “Stand Your Ground,” it suggests that the AHS writers have read the news but perhaps not absorbed it, like when Saturday Night Live adds quotemarks to real statements and calls it satire.
There are some intriguing performances on the margins. The new neighbors are Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman, married despite his open homosexuality. Like a lot of Ryan Murphy characters, they are goofy caricatures played dead serious – they were best friends with a marriage pact, just like everyone in romantic comedies and no one in real life! – and Grossman especially seems to grasp onto the show’s wavelength, funny and scary and confidently desperate.
But three episodes deep, it’s frustratingly unclear what Cult is. Last week, Murphy offered some teases of the season ahead, suggesting that the season will circle backwards into American history. That’s a common thread on the show, but it’s also another strange retreat from the realtime astonishment of Cult‘s opening scene. On the other hand, the show’s attempts toward topicality don’t always work: There’s a running Jill Stein gag that feels limp, like a Twitter joke thawed out of last December. And there are the omnipresent clowns. If you’re the sort of person who can’t even look at the poster for It, the clowns might be enough horror to justify watching. To me, they’re a weirdly shameless attempt at shock value, like the show can’t even sustain fascination in its own human interests.
Paulson and Peters are electric the few times they’re onscreen together, two political-extremist poles that magnetically attract. I suspect these first three episodes might constitute an extended prologue, frustratingly similar to how the first half of Roanoke was an overextended set-up for the perspective-shifting madness of the final episodes. I hope that the show can live up to its opening scene, and its provocative punchline: The real monster was America, all along. C+