American Horror Story: Cult Review
Director: Bradley Buecker
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Alison Pill, Billie Lourd
Writers: Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
American Horror Story is a tough show to get a read on after only a single episode. Every season of this anthology series has had a strong enough premise and an interesting enough premiere. The problems usually come later when the show seems to burn through the story, get bored with interesting or promising plotlines, waste fantastic guest actors or become too boring or by the numbers. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the promise of its ideas and cast and batshit insane writing pays off, and you get a good and entertaining season of television.
After only one episode it’s impossible to tell whether Cult will end up being a good season of American Horror Story, like Murder House, Asylum, and Roanoke, or a bad season, like Coven, Freakshow, and Hotel.
The setup is certainly interesting enough. “Election Night” starts on — you guessed it — election night. We see the reaction to Donald Trump’s victory from two different perspectives. Evan Peters’ Kai is a basement-dwelling weirdo who celebrates Trump’s victory by dry-humping his TV set. He then blends a bunch of Cheetos and paints his face with the dust. On the flip side, Aly (Sarah Paulson) and her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) watch the news in horror with their friends. Aly literally screams at the TV in terror when Trump’s victory is announced.
This is not the most nuanced political satire in the world, but it is pretty funny.
While the season looks like it’ll eventually involve cults and bees and lots of other craziness, the premiere was primarily interested in the aftermath of the election and killer clowns. The broad political caricatures deliver the type of campy comedy American Horror Story loves to employ. Kai is alt-right as hell, seen passionately arguing to a city council that they should allow a Synagogue to be threatened. Later, sings “La Cucaracha” before throwing a condom filled with urine at a group of undocumented workers. Aly is an upper-class business owner who is the definition of a performatively “woke” neoliberal. She’s also going through something of a psychotic break.
The titular horror doesn’t just come from the election, but also the classic killer clowns. Aly starts to hallucinate this masked gang of clowns which look like they’d be in the background of a Purge movie. They terrorize her at a grocery store and then later at work, but it all seems to be in her head. But then her son says he saw these clowns murder their neighbours, so presumably, there’s more to the story.
“Election Night” sets up the basics, giving us rough sketches of characters and letting Paulson and Peters bring them to life. Both of them seem to be having a ball, which is standard for actors in American Horror Story. Say what you will about the show itself, the series is like a scenery buffet for its performers. It’s never been a surprise why it attracts such high calibre talent. The problem with the lesser entries in the show is that those performances can only overcome so much, and if the writing isn’t there then it all falls apart halfway through the season.
My plan is to keep watching until they lose me. If I’m lucky, that won’t happen at all, but it’s always a possibility with this show. The premiere was certainly fun and funny. Although, it lacked a bit in the actual horror aspect. I could also understand someone finding the broad caricatures grating. If we don’t get something a little deeper that might make me bail as well. The actors are good enough to keep me interested so far.
Verdict: Check it out… for now. Again, Cult is like any other season of American Horror Story in that I’ll be watching it with one finger precariously perched over top of the eject button. I’ll absolutely be watching it long enough to see what role Billy Eichner is playing. The premiere was fun, and Cult set itself apart enough from previous seasons. I think it’s worth watching to see if it grabs you.