President Trump's election last year immediately sent audiences and critics on a hunt for political themes in current TV shows, movies, literature and songs — parsing the content for vital resonance or meaning or yet another chance to use the phrase "now more than ever." Outrage is easy to find when you're looking for it, so it hardly mattered that most of the scripted TV shows on the receiving end of this fresh scrutiny had been in production months before the election, which means that any real-life politics layered on them were almost entirely in the eyes of their beholders.
Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," for one very good example, was completed and on its way regardless of the 2016 election outcome. Trump's rhetorical talent for stirring the fascist beast that lurks within the national character merely helped the show seem more conceivable and therefore more frightening.
Now, 10 months after the election and on the brink of the fall TV season, we have what amounts to our first big drama that explicitly addresses the only person we ever talk about anymore. It's "American Horror Story: Cult," the seventh iteration of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's FX anthology series of sicko, scary tales that aim to both celebrate and subvert the horror genre. No subtext about it — this time the horror is the president.
Deploying their perfected weaponry (camp, irony and gore, along with a sadomasochistic mandate that nothing is ever truly taboo), Murphy, Falchuk and company deliver a premise that's as blunt as it can possibly be, but also satirically sly in the way it holds a mirror up to the double standards on either extreme of the political spectrum.
The first episode of "Cult" (premiering Tuesday) wastes no time setting itself up: It's the oh-so-long-ago night of Nov. 8, 2016, and a group of friends has gathered to watch election returns at the tastefully yuppified small-town Michigan home of Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill), a nice lesbian couple who run a successful locavore restaurant on a quaint Main Street nearby.
Stoked for a Hillary Clinton victory, the women and their friends are instead subjected to the live nightmare of Trump's triumph — and it is indeed portrayed with such screaming and weeping and cursing of statistician Nate Silver that it terrifies Ally and Ivy's nerdy young son, Oz (Cooper Dodson), who asks if his mommies will be able to stay married.
"Oh God, Ivy," wails Ally, with each new realization. "Merrick Garland! What's going to happen to Merrick Garland?!"
"Cult" also zeros in on the immediate blame and recrimination: How could this happen? What went wrong? Because they live in a district in which Clinton crucially lost by a mere 10,000 votes, one of their party guests blames his wife for surfing Pinterest all day instead of voting. Even worse (and I caution that the rest of this sentence merits a slight spoiler alert), it turns out that someone in the Mayfair-Richards household didn't pull the lever for Clinton in the voting booth.
The outcome sends Ally, who has struggled with phobias and anxiety for years, on a downward spiral. Remember in 2016 when Americans were briefly gripped by a spate of coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) and started seeing and reporting creepy clowns stalking their communities? "American Horror Story" certainly remembers and considers the Trump victory a splendid time to capitalize on it. Not only have they brought back Twisty the Clown (a memorably murderous character from a previous season), but they've also sent in all the clowns, who act as a kind of Manson family, leaving smiley faces painted in blood at their crime scenes. Ally starts seeing them everywhere, even in her grocery store, where the only other person around is a gloating cashier in his red Make America Great Again baseball cap.
Across town, the Trump victory has electrified Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), a twisted young man who exalts in the moment, smearing his face with orange Cheetos dust and styling his dyed-blue hair into a Trumpian pompadour. Kai begins to menacingly assert his power as one of the president-elect's "forgotten" Americans — free to taunt his community with politically incorrect remarks and aggressive behavior while he campaigns to fill a newly vacant city council seat, as the previous occupant has been gruesomely murdered.
Ally is one of Kai's favorite lefties to intimidate, and as she sends up all kinds of warning flares, both her therapist (Cheyenne Jackson) and her wife tell her she's being paranoid. Her increasing desperation leads her down a path of extremism that she had previously deplored in others. Before she knows it, she's a gun owner being accused of white privilege.
Whether she's seeing things clearly or not, Ally's world is changing in front of her. A weird and brash couple (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman) moves in across the street, saying and doing things that seem designed to further provoke Ally's anxieties; same goes for Oz's creepy new part-time nanny (Billie Lourd) who, unbeknown to Ally and Ivy, is working alongside Kai.
The most notable aspect of "Cult" is how it seems to mock Ally's constant state of panic, as if sending a message to anti-Trump worrywarts relentlessly crying those sweet liberal tears: Get a grip already and stop freaking out over every last Trump tweet and executive order. At the same time, the show gives a compelling, visionary shape to the monstrous aspect of American discourse in 2017 — a literal manifestation of the bubbling, roiling evils of racism, homophobia, xenophobia and hate. The show is here to justify your revulsion.
It would be nice to be able to declare all of this to be a brilliant and timely effort to process our world, but "Cult" brings with it many of the problems that have plagued past seasons of "American Horror Story." The show has never been known for its restraint, favoring a fire-ready-aim approach to storytelling that causes a typical season to swerve from episodes that are disturbingly wonderful to episodes that seem like time-consuming detours.
Nuance is never a factor when Murphy and his team are at their most unhinged; the only selling point is the show's constant cleverness and commitment to form. They never worry about laying things on too thick; consequently, "American Horror Story" always lays things on too thick, which gets tiresome for anyone who wanted a story instead of a carnival ride. The first three episodes of "Cult" made available for this review are just a hint of what's to come in a world gone mad with Trump and killer clowns — and they leave a lot of room for improvement.
As smart and topical as this show could be, the plot begins to sputter and wheeze way too soon; in trying to come up with the scariest thing it can think of, "Cult" is oddly low on the sort of chills that would keep a viewer up at night. Even with the idea of the president as a constant (if theoretical) boogeyman, it's difficult to sustain the sort of energy it takes to live in constant fear of him or what he'll do. And once a viewer gets past that, the unfortunate truth is that this "American Horror Story" is just another slasher tale that features a bunch of bad clowns.
American Horror Story: Cult (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.