There’s nothing subtle about the historical moment we’re living through. A man with no impulse control and a vicious disdain of anyone/anything who does not resemble him has ascended to the highest office in the land. Americans are wearing their political proclivities and hatreds on their sleeve (sometimes literally, often swastikas). It’s a dumb, ugly, blunt time to be alive, and to it has come an often dumb, ugly, blunt TV show. It is called American Horror Story: Cult. And it’s a major missed opportunity.
Unlike previous iterations of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s anthology horror series – which rely on tweaked horror tropes in lieu of tackling contemporary issues head-on – the seventh season of AHS stridently and purposefully locates itself in an America reeling from the 2016 presidential election; it isn’t just the setting but also the substance of the horror. In its attempt to parody and comment upon the fear, cruelty and paranoia of Trump’s America, however, it instead becomes an artifact of it. The show is reductive where it should be incisive, dull where it should be sharp, turning liberals and alt-righters alike into equally repulsive monsters – “on both sides,” as someone once sneered.
AHS all-stars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters feature as two Michiganites on opposite ends of the political spectrum: Ally Mayfair-Richards is a left-wing lesbian restaurateur with a loving nuclear family and a host of anxieties; Kai Anderson is a wild-eyed alt-right loner with a literal hard-on for other people’s rage and fear. The show’s first four episodes set the two on a collision course, starting the night of the 2016 election and spinning out from there like the aftermath of a 10-car pileup.
But here’s the thing about these two, in addition to every other character on the show – they’re not people. They’re cartoons. And while the show’s usual modus operandi is to go big and go broad, it’s a bit of a death blow to anything resembling a satirical impulse. “What was wrong with CNN for not giving us a trigger warning before they announced the results?” Ally moans improbably into the arms of her long-suffering wife Ivy (Alison Pill), whose only character trait is that she is long-suffering. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Kai jubilates, “Fuck you, world! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” while dry-humping his television screen. Later, Ally will chew out her son for giving his pet guinea pig a cisgender name and feel deeply tortured about Jill Stein, while Kai will rub a slurry of ground Cheetos on his face and lob a condom full of urine at Latino workers. Nuance, thy name is not Ryan Murphy.
There are no human beings here – only walking, talking sound bites, straw men lifted from poorly researched headlines. “The proudest moment of my life when was Lena Dunham retweeted me,” one character blurts out in a job interview, apropos of nothing. (Speaking of which, the Girls creator is slated to make a cameo later this season.) “I got almost 6,000 followers from that. Just not enough to elect the first woman president.” In another scene, two “angry liberal” women tie up a would-be Trump voter in a basement on election night so that he can’t cast his ballot. “People like you don’t matter anymore,” one of them spits, becoming the leftist bogeyman that right-wingers fear but who doesn’t actually have a real-world counterpart.
And this being AHS, fear can’t just be a feeling; it also has to take a shape – so cue a roving band of murder clowns sporting rubber masks and bloody knives. It’s an easy phobia button to push, as well as a current boogeyman du jour and a callback to autumn 2016’s bizarre series of creepy clown sightings along the East Coast, which felt like a symptom of the undiagnosed madness sweeping the country pre-election. A year down the line, however, those perma-grinned lurkers seem almost quaint in comparison to the very real monsters who have come out of the woodwork since. Clowns are scary. IRL Nazis are scarier.
Which brings us to the overall problem of attempting to make a TV series that limns the present moment: By the time it comes out, it’s already the past. Cult feels like a show that was simultaneously made too soon and too late, poking at fresh wounds while also picking at old scabs. The free-floating anxiety that many Americans felt in the days after November 8th, 2016, is no longer free-floating, as embodied in Cult by Ally and her host of phobias; it has located itself in daily horrors like white-supremacist rallies, nuclear saber-rattling and the stripping of immigrant and minority rights. Kai may be an unhinged megalomaniac, but he perversely seems more reasonable than the 71-year-old manchild with his finger on the big red button.
Let’s talk about Kai for a second. He’s a classic genre villain in the vein of the Joker, with his thirst for power blended with charisma, intelligence and psychopathy. (And to Peters’ credit, he totally sells it.) But as the metaphorical figure Murphy and Falchuck seem to want him to be, he’s pretty muddled. “There is nothing more dangerous in the world than a humiliated man,” he declares early on, a signal that he’s a stand-in for Trump’s red-meat supporters who felt disenfranchised by an increasingly diverse and progressive world seemingly leaving them behind. Yet the first people he recruits to his side are a Hillary Clinton supporter (Billie Lourd), a frustrated gay man (Billy Eichner) and an African-American news anchor (Adina Porter). Please call us if you ever see a real-world right-wing mob this diverse.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about Cult‘s sadistic parody of current politics is who it excludes. This is a show, by, for and about white people – and white people only. With the exception of Porter, the show’s few minority characters are used as murder victims and/or punch lines to the show’s mean jokes. When a Latino character is shot and killed, his death is parlayed into a winky parody of the Black Lives Matter movement. As for the consequences, Cult treats him less as a person than as a symbol that the show’s white protagonists can feel or not feel a way about.
Maybe some people get a kick out of slumming in this fictional nasty world, in which every person – regardless of what side of the political fence they’re on – always gives into their worst and basest instincts. But for the rest of us, it’s a misaimed kick in the gut when we’re already down on the ground, winded from the real gut punches of the latest headlines. In Trump’s inauguration speech, the newly sworn-in president spoke of us living in an age of “American carnage.” His grim diagnosis of our society rang false for many Americans, but perhaps not to the AHS creators. The country is sick, yes, but not in the way Trump – or Cult – seems to believe it is.