“American Horror Story: Cult” clearly intends to be provocative, using the toxic partisan political divide – beginning with the 2016 presidential election – as its jumping-off point. But producer Ryan Murphy’s anthology series is too blunt an instrument to effectively probe that terrain, using the equivalent of an axe where a scalpel is required.
As a consequence, the opening chapters of the program’s seventh edition feel as if they’re exploiting the current climate as much as commenting upon it. And while the characteristically acerbic writing includes witty barbs and observations – from those sporting MAGA hats to latte-sipping liberals – the finer points are lost in lurid imagery and cheap scares, masquerading as smart TV.
“Horror Story” regulars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters again anchor the show, which opens with 90 seconds of news footage building toward election night. Peters’ Kai sits alone exulting in Trump’s victory, while Paulson’s Ally melts into tears, aghast at what this political turn means for the nation as well as her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) and their young son.
The outcome, however, doesn’t just unsettle Ally, but also unleashes a series of dormant phobias, including her fear of (sigh) homicidal clowns. She and her wife also retain a nanny, Winter (Billie Lourd, last seen in Murphy’s “Scream Queens”), who might be the creepiest domestic since “Young Frankenstein’s” Frau Blucher.
As noted, there are some clever asides scattered throughout, starting with a progressive’s complaint about CNN not providing a “trigger warning” before announcing that Trump had won. Everything about the show, moreover, has been constructed to highlight partisan rifts, setting the story in Michigan (a state Trump narrowly won) and flitting around to topics like gun rights, race relations and immigration.
Still, “American Horror Story” is, on some key levels, a splatter-fest, regularly mixing sex and violence in stylized and voyeuristic fashion. Yet fulfilling the expectations associated with that naughty, over-the-top streak simply doesn’t mesh with the more ambitious ideas that “Cult” appears determined to raise, and indeed despite this installment’s serious intentions risks trivializing them.
To be fair, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have exhibited a willingness and knack for tackling hot-button issues, as a show like “Glee” frequently did, while using that (and especially with this franchise, calculated stunt casting) as a marketing come-on. They have also experimented under the “AHS” banner, including the last outing, “Roanoke,” a messy effort that satirized the quirks of reality television.
Still, if the producers wanted to weigh in with any gravity on today’s cultural schism they should have developed something new instead of trying to squeeze those aspirations into the blood-rimmed contours of “American Horror Story.” As is, the resulting scheme plays like a gimmick at its worst, and at its best, an awkward fit.
“American Horror Story: Cult” premieres Sept. 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.