It’s no easy task to write apolitical political satire. That’s probably why Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk failed so miserably to produce anything worth watching in the season premiere of “American Horror Story: Cult,” which is set in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Now in its seventh season, “American Horror Story” has received generally positive responses from critics and casual TV watchers alike for its creative premises, engaging plotlines, and can’t-look-away grotesquerie. “Cult,” however, falls flat, in large part because of its co-creators’ refusal to explore the season’s subject matter in any meaningful way.
Ryan Murphy never intended for “Cult” to be, in his words, “pro-Hillary [or] anti-Donald Trump.” Though his intentions may have been to avoid letting the show devolve into partisan propaganda, the show’s half-baked political neutrality prevents it from offering nuanced observations or incisive commentary. For instance, while earlier seasons of “American Horror Story” brimmed with compelling and well-acted characters, “Cult” is populated entirely by insufferable caricatures. Murphy lampoons those on both sides of the political spectrum with a maddening ham-fistedness. On one side are the unhinged and vulgar Trump supporters, who shout racial slurs and victory-hump TV screens; on the other side are the snowflake liberals, who bemoan CNN’s lack of trigger warnings, burst frequently into affluent Caucasian tears, and brandish bottles of rosé at possibly hallucinated evil clowns.
The plot, too, is burdened with this ungainly mix of clumsiness and ineffectuality. The premiere primarily follows Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), an anxiety-ridden Jill Stein voter who appears to be this season’s protagonist, as she experiences a rather boringly unidirectional descent into mental instability following Trump’s election. Despite the episode’s ever-present theme of fear and the politics thereof, it largely fails to explore, explicitly or obliquely, the very real fears faced by Americans in the wake of the current political climate. Instead, Murphy attempts to meet some kind of scare quota by peppering the episode with Ally’s phobias (blood, clowns, irregular clusters of holes) and hoping viewers share at least some of them.
The only real-life collective fear “Cult” comes close to capturing is the sense of mistrust and unreality that permeated election night and the months thereafter. In one scene, Ally makes commiserative small talk with a cashier only to see him don a Make America Great Again hat. This incident allows the viewer to understand the symbolic significance of Ally’s subsequent killer clown encounters: Where once there were friends, there are foes. In every corner lurks another person who believes the world would be better off without her. Truth be told, however, the cast of clowns is not necessary to convey Ally’s sense of post-election wariness and derealization. In fact, their presence––combined with Ally’s histrionics and an excessive number of semi-ironic dolly zooms––made the episode almost unbearably campy at times.
It’s never quite clear what “Cult” is trying to get across, what’s meant to be a joke and what’s meant to be scary. Evan Peters’ maniacal blue-haired Trump supporter character is a menacing bigot, but his bizarre antics (he covers his face with Cheeto powder to celebrate Trump’s victory) render him too ridiculous to be frightening yet too threatening to be funny. Billie Lourd is successfully unsettling as a snuff film-watching babysitter, but her character’s self-injurious tendencies and anxieties about reproductive justice are played in such a strangely flippant way that she lands in a bungling middle ground between seriousness and satire.
In the end, “Cult” comes off as a feeble and opportunistic attempt to maximize viewership on both sides of the aisle. Anyway, even if it had offered a more biting take on recent events, it’s unlikely that it could be any scarier than America’s current descent into a real-life horror story.