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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: CULT Is Timely, Unsettling, and Original (Review)

Despite its title, Ryan Murphy’s long running horror anthology American Horror Story has never had anything about it that made it distinctly American. Previous seasons, like Murder House, Asylum, Hotel, and the rest, could just as easily have taken place anyplace else on Earth. But with the show’s seventh season, AHS: Cult, it is finally telling a story that is 100% about these United States of America, and where we are right now as a nation.

As you may have read in all the pre-release hype leading up to this season’s premiere, the premise of the series this year is centered on the 2016 presidential election. But it’s also kind of not. The election, and its fallout over the past several months, is the backdrop for the “why and when” of the season, but Murphy and company are dealing with many different themes this year, and all of them are about particular anxieties that the American public has, going back to well before Trump was granted the presidency in a rather shocking twist of events last November.

AHS: Cult centers on Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), a married suburbanite and mother of an adorable little boy named Oz. Ally runs a restaurant in Michigan with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), and has some serious anxiety issues and phobias, including an intense fear of clowns, for which she sees Dr. Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) on a regular basis. However, the 2016 election has taken her anxiety issues to the next level, and it’s making her see things that (supposedly) aren’t there–mainly an assortment of extremely creepy clowns who seem to be stalking her and her family.

It’s here that I should warn you: if you have any kind of clown phobia, maybe watch another show.

While Ally is a card carrying liberal Democrat, who is brought to rage and tears following Donald Trump’s election, the show’s other lead is partying like it’s 1999. This would be blue-haired anarchist Kai (Evan Peters), who revels in the notion of “fear motivating people,” and who hopes to use this fear for his own agenda. He says things like, “Fear is currency, fear has value,” and the world around him seems to be proving his point. Also among the main cast of characters are Billie Lourd as Winter, the couple’s babysitter who’s really a spy for Kai, and Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as the Wiltons, the new neighbors from hell.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here to play with here, and I respect the hell out of Murphy for having the balls to tackle this head on, right while we are all still in the thick of it. There’s been a lot of great movies and TV this year, but it seems like nearly everything is going out of its way to not deal with the very real tension in the country right now. Back in the ’60s, shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek tackled the issues of the day head on, even if the only way to deal with them was metaphorically.

Of course, this is still American Horror Story, which means that it’s going to tackle all of these issues with the subtlety of a anvil falling on a Looney Tunes character’s head. Over the span of the first three episodes, it becomes obvious that the killer clowns are intended to represent the conservative Trump voters, reveling in the “liberal tears” of the defeated “snowflakes,” while Ally and family are likewise caricatures of the oversensitive liberals who thrive on internet outrage culture. Because of this, show is going to alienate people, and potentially lose fans, on both sides of the aisle. Hats off to Murphy for even attempting something with the potential to piss off everyone.

Whatever complaints I might have about AHS‘ lack of subtlety, and Murphy’s reliance on trashy shock value scenarios, I never have a complaint about his casting. Having proved themselves the show’s MVPs since the first season, both Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters step up as this season’s principal players. As great as well known “name” stars like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Lady Gaga have been on this series, their clout have always served to overshadow the amazing work from Paulson and Peters. With these two front and center this year, that’s for sure not going to happen.

Another thing I have to appreciate about this season so far is that it seems less like a hodgepodge of horror movie references than previous seasons have, and more like its own (mostly) original thing. Yes, we’ve seen creepy clowns a bunch of times before, as well as home invaders in masks. But aside from those familiar elements, Cult asserts itself as its own entity. Last year’s AHS: Roanoke season felt similarly original, and I applaud Ryan Murphy and the rest of the show’s writers for starting to come up with more scenarios like these.

It’s almost impossible to judge this season of AHS completely based on just three episodes, because almost every year starts of strong before flaming out and ending with a whimper. But I can’t say I’m not intrigued by what I’ve seen so far, and will keep coming back for more. Due to its particularly timely subject matter, I’m rooting more than ever for American Horror Story to stick the landing this time.

American Horror Story: Cult premieres Tuesday, September 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX


Images: FX Networks

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