Sarah Paulson as Ally Mayfair-Richards on American Horror Story: Cult. Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX
American Horror Story has long been one of the most in-your-face shows on TV, layering fantastical plots with cartoonish violence and knowingly over-the-top acting. Last season’s Roanoke took aim at reality TV, with mixed but generally amusing results. This season’s Cult takes aim at reality itself, and so far it’s been horrifying in all the wrong ways.
Before we knew its title would be Cult, we knew the series’ seventh season would be about the 2016 Presidential election. That was later amended to explain that it wouldn’t be a recreation of Trump versus Clinton (in the manner of creator Ryan Murphy’s twisted Hollywood history lesson, Feud), but rather a show that fed off the turmoil and terror that’s permeated the news cycle since Trump’s victory. That concept was far more intriguing. Shows like The Handmaid’s Tale capitalised on that same chilling unease with remarkable effectiveness. But two out of 10 Cult episodes in, the execution has been unbelievably heavy-handed — even for a show like AHS that would never, ever dream of being the least bit subtle.
So far, there’s only one character who’s remotely likable, and it’s not even the little kid saddled with the unenviable (and obviously thematically significant name) of “Ozymandias,” Oz or Ozzy for short. Ozzy has two mums; lucky for him, one of them is Ivy (Alison Pill), the head chef at a classy, meat-centric eatery in a smallish Michigan town. She’s level-headed and practical, with the outlook that yes, it totally sucks that Trump won, and the turning cultural tide is something to keep a close eye on — but keeping her restaurant afloat, her kid happy, and her marriage on course are still the things that matter the most.
Her wife (also co-parent, co-restaurant owner, regretful Jill Stein voter, and scenery-chewer) Ally (Sarah Paulson) is far more fragile. Ally was prone to drama even before the election — after 9/11, she recalls, she couldn’t even leave her apartment — and she has a diagnosed anxiety problem, exacerbated by an array of potent phobias (especially clowns). She won’t take her meds, which might help her (and us) sort out how many of those ghoulish clowns she’s seeing everywhere are real, and how many are figments of her frantic imagination. (We know it’s one or the other, because Cult is supposed to be the first season of AHS that deals exclusively with the real world, rather than the supernatural.) Spending time with shrill, needy, self-centered Ally — who says smug things like “I am interested in building bridges, not walls,” but sure doesn’t act like it — is exhausting and unpleasant.
The flip side of Ally is the equally parodic, equally odious conservative Kai (Evan Peters). Though the blue-haired aspiring politician celebrates when Trump wins, so far he seems way more fond of chaos and fear in general than in supporting the actual POTUS. He’s ambitious and manipulative in the worst way, taunting migrant workers with racial slurs so they will beat him up, and then basking in the publicity when a context-free video of the attack makes the evening news. (He is also, quite probably, the leader of the murderous masked clown gang that’s been making its presence known around town, though Cult hasn’t fully revealed the truth about his involvement just yet.) Kai is a marginally more interesting character than Ally, simply because he’s less predictable. But he’s loathsome and irritating, and just as smug as Ally in his own way.
So, we know we’re supposed to hate Kai, because he’s blatantly racist and also most likely a killer. Meanwhile, Ally is also racist in her own way — she assumes one of the restaurant’s kitchen workers is an immigrant, when he’s actually from San Diego — and she’s also most likely a killer, too; episode two’s last shot shows her gunning down the same man by accident when he appears at her door, doing a good deed on Ivy’s behalf, during a sudden blackout.
Ugh. Why? Also, giving the unstable Ally access to a loaded gun in episode two? Might as well just have a fist emerge from your TV screen to punch you in the face. The supporting characters may be good for a passing chuckle — especially Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as Ally and Ivy’s extremely eccentric new neighbours, who are also maybe/definitely part of Kai’s killer clown posse — but the first two episodes have spent a lot of energy setting up the dichotomy between Kai and Ally. It’s draining to watch, and that feels like a deliberate choice. Make both sides as wretched as possible, then have them clash face-to-face in scenes seemingly written with the business end of a sledgehammer. It can barely be called satire; its take on current events is uncomfortably literal, and there’s nothing fun about it whatsoever.
AHS has traditionally rewarded its audience with twists and turns that build over each season — Roanoke, for instance, gleefully ripped apart hidden-camera reality shows and found-footage horror while weaving its exceptionally gory haunted-house tale. Hotel‘s glamorous vampires-and-ghosts drama was consistently involving and ever-evolving, leading to an upbeat ending that nobody would have expected when the season began.
And no doubt, Cult is laying the groundwork for something similar; we’ll be seeing Peters playing different dangerously charismatic figures besides Kai, including Andy Warhol, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson. These narrative shifts, thankfully, appear to have nothing to do with Ally and her tiresome clown phobia. And maybe the season will turn a corner and actually have something thought-provoking to say as it progresses. But unlike other seasons, Cult has opened with such strident unpleasantness — poking the same nerves that are already worked raw by actual current events, and adding little entertainment value or meaningful insight — that it’s difficult to even invest in its story in the first place. Far more tempting is the urge to just change the channel and watch something, anything else.