Sarah Paulson shines in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s satirical look at the aftermath of the 2016 election and how it relates to a masked gang of killer clowns.
Last fall’s sixth American Horror Story installment was all about Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk being secretive. There were no press screeners, plot summaries, official images or even a title before premiere. The experience of the first hour of Roanoke was one of uncertainty, trying to figure out the premise and gimmick of the season. I’m still not sure I could explain it.
There’s no such coyness afoot in American Horror Story: Cult. The three episodes sent to critics ahead of Tuesday’s premiere are the most since the first season, and they’re enough to make a strong case for Cult as perhaps the franchise’s most focused and funny entry to date. As satirically subtle as a room full of knife-wielding lunatics in clown costumes, Cult may also be the franchise’s most accessible entry, though that may depend on your tolerance for political talk and, of course, knife-wielding lunatics in clown costumes.
Cult begins with a quick recap of the 2016 election, leading to two very different reactions to election night. In a posh suburban Michigan house, Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison) watch returns with growing misery and incredulity.
“Merrick Garland! What’s going to happen to Merrick Garland?” wails Ally, the more emotional of the two women, who are co-owners of trendy restaurant The Butchery on Main and mothers to a spectacled moppet with an interest in creepy comic books.
At the other end of the town’s economic spectrum, angry white guy Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) greets Donald Trump’s victory with cathartic jubilation, going so far as to coat his face in ground-up Cheetos dust. Need I remind you that this show doesn’t opt for undercurrents when a mega-voltage taser is available?
Kai’s unleashed impunity leads him to an honesty session with shell-shocked sister Winter (Billie Lourd), who dropped out of college to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
“I’m just so scared now,” Winter says. “Everyone is,” Kai growls back.
Early reports suggested the season would be about the 2016 election, which prompted speculation that Trump and Clinton would be characters this season. Instead, the show focuses on the sense of discombobulation that many people have felt since the election, the notion that something turned upside down on Nov. 8, either locking us into a cycle of increasingly disconcerting and nightmarish news that seems nonstop, or else freeing us from the constraints of societal decency by proving that things that once were ideologically taboo are now embraced by mainstream powers. It’s about the factionalizing of a country in which the more polarized we become, the more we retreat into enclaves of those with similar beliefs, each group getting our news and information only from sources with similar agendas. See how that might fit the title?
Paulson’s Ally is probably our heroine. Long a victim of an array of phobias, Ally was able to control her fears thanks to her love for Ivy and the help of her concerned shrink (Cheyenne Jackson). After the election, though, Ally’s failing. Haunted by a dark secret, she’s becoming increasingly agoraphobic and her capacity to resist her trypophobia (fear of small holes) and coulrophobia (fear of clowns) is slipping away. It doesn’t help that there’s apparently a roving gang of killer clowns going around town butchering people. But just because the killer clowns exist doesn’t mean they’re actually out to get you, and Ally’s loosening grasp on reality is about to produce tragic consequences for her community and her family.
As Ally is becoming weaker, Kai is becoming stronger. Emboldened by rhetoric condoning his biases and xenophobia, Kai sees an opportunity for leadership, or at least for revenge on those who humiliated him previously.
Just because Cult is working without supernatural elements doesn’t mean it isn’t full of demented, hallucinatory imagery, as well as the jump scares that come from spotting clowns in places clowns don’t belong. Murphy and Falchuk have always approached American Horror Story as an anthology of loving genre homages. And without witches or ghosts or succubi, Cult draws its inspiration from home invasion thrillers like You’re Next or The Strangers or, to go back a bit, Straw Dogs, in which the places that are supposed to be safest and most secure are violated most terrifyingly. It’s the nature of terrorism, to destroy the illusion of comfort, and Murphy and Falchuk are looking at America’s modern discomfort in micro. The first three episodes, directed with appropriately over-the-top jolts by Bradley Buecker, Liza Johnson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton, mount their best set pieces in Ally and Ivy’s impeccably decorated house and in the rivetingly banal aisles of a grocery story. (The show is less effective at justifying or reproducing its Michigan setting. I know they wanted to set the season in a swing state, but anytime a character mentioned Michigan, I laughed.)
Driven by a score that apes Bernard Herrmann at every turn, Cult is also going for psychological terror in the Alfred Hitchcock vein, with Marnie as probably the clearest inspiration. In a role that mixes intense unraveling with small humorous bursts chiding triggered liberals, Paulson is spectacular. After three episodes, I was feeling real pity for what Murphy is putting his muse through, but if the text of Cult is, “The world is fucked up and the election made it worse,” the subtext appears to be, “Sarah Paulson needs another Emmy.” In that side of the story, Pill provides sturdy support and, as she proved on Scream Queens, Lourd can display a rainbow of unnerving nuance within a deceptively disaffected deadpan.
Murphy has talked about how flashbacks will let Peters portray a number of cult leaders throughout the season, but that doesn’t begin in the opening three episodes. (Also not in the first three episodes? Cult guest star Lena Dunham, so those suffering from irrational Dunophobia can watch without fear.) Instead, he’s just extremely effective as a troubled young man whose crazed eyes and unflappable commitment won’t be unfamiliar to anybody who watched the Vice coverage of the Charlottesville march.
Possibly representing a different sort of cult are Meadow (Leslie Grossman) and Harrison (Billy Eichner), Ally and Ivy’s creepy new across-the-street neighbors. They’re ultra-sensitive lefties with a peculiar marriage arrangement and they raise bees, which lets the show offer the not-too-subtle reminder that bees, with their lock-step hives, are a cult of their own. One thing I’m coming to realize: For a guy whose primary job is yelling at civilians on the street, Eichner is a very good actor with impeccable volume control when he isn’t playing himself. Depending on his character’s arc as the season progresses, Eichner could end up being the season’s big revelation.
If you’re thinking, “Wait, if this is an ultraviolent satire about how fractured political discourse in America has led to people effectively cloistering themselves with people who confirm their ideology before becoming an extended home-invasion thriller, isn’t it just The Purge?” My answer is, “Yes, this is basically Ryan Murphy’s The Purge,” which means it’s far, far better written and better produced, but somehow also more exploitative for that level of artistry. It’s easier to dismiss The Purge as trash, so when Cult goes trashy directions you want to pull it aside and say, “Be better. I know you can be.”
It’s also exhausting in that way that American Horror Story seasons always grip me initially and then wear me down until I quit watching. I sometimes enjoy a good home-invasion movie, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “Man, I wish this could be 10 hours long.” American Horror Story seasons usually have large genre pivots during their run, and I’ll be interested to see how long Cult is going to be about three-faced clowns with dildo noses and what it will become after that. So far, I’m properly disturbed by Murphy and company’s much-too-close-to-home allegory, amused by some of the sharp social satire and endlessly impressed by Paulson. That should keep me with American Horror Story: Cult longer than I’ve stuck with several other seasons.
Cast: Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Cheyenne Jackson, Billie Lourd, Alison Pill, Billy Eichner, Leslie Grossman, Colton Haynes, Adina Porter
Showrunners: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m.