TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Cult’ Gorges on Satire

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As FX continues to grow, one of its flagship shows continues to evolve. While the network was once known for series like “The Shield” and “Rescue Me,” they shifted their strategies over the past decade. One of the strongest series to help the tonal shift in the network was “American Horror Story,” brought to TV by the polarizing creator Ryan Murphy. The series is undeniably an influential show for the modern TV landscape. It’s success re-popularized the anthology series, and it became a fluid, ever-changing series.

To have a series that can adapt to the landscape it exists in makes “American Horror Story” an interesting series to the world today. Considering Murphy’s outspoken nature, it may be one of the best shows at adapting to the zeitgeist. “Roanoke” deftly restructured the series into a view of true crime phenomena. “Freak Show” attempted to look at identity politics in a 1950s setting. Earlier seasons explored sexual politics and camp in pop culture. The series is constantly evolving but it may not always be for the better.

This season, “American Horror Story: Cult” takes a not-so-subtle look at the post-Trump America. To say that Murphy’s series handles this was subtlety would be a lie. Instead, it directly confronts the phobias that we feel as individuals and as a country. The season focuses on the liberal view of the world post-Trump. Murphy reveals his belief that the fear is tied to hysteria. Liberal hypochondria is featured heavily through the season, often showcasing the negative side of this worry. Often, the characters that are most worried about safety are the most dangerous.

On the opposite side the spectrum, the series delves into feelings of inadequacy and fear. This is often something that has been cited as a cause for the right to rally around Trump. Here, the show channels this fear through false narratives about immigrant crime and heightened levels of violence. Economic anxiety destroys relationships as the series progresses. Safety is prioritized by some, and the shift towards fascism is clearly outlined. The portrayal is far from flattering, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville, it’s impossible to say it’s an unfounded conclusion. While literal Nazi’s don’t walk the streets, there are plenty of dangerous individuals masquerading as political actors, who do find power.

As usual, the actors and actresses here are absolutely feasting on the material. Best-in-show is Sarah Paulson, who takes advantage of her role as Murphy’s muse. Simply put, she has the best material and showcases the greatest range of emotion. She has the most internal conflict as a character, while also handling external forces attempting to harm her. She is far from a blameless character and puts herself in negative positions on several occasions. Allison Pill plays Paulson’s wife, and the two have solid chemistry. Still, Paulson is undeniably the stronger of the two and is gripping in her role.

Evan Peters brings an unprecedented intensity to the role he’s given. As one of Murphy’s prime time players, he’s gifted an interesting role that might be his best since “Murder House” in Season 1. He is a despicable character, but the ways in which he engages in normalcy allows him to gain a following. His character builds a cult based on finding refuge from fear, and others begin to join him. Peters is a stand-in for Trump, and as such his strongest trait is his charisma. He will undeniably one of Murphy’s most memorable characters, and will be one of his most surprising characters in years.

Others pop in and out of the season and could become strong characters later in the season. Billy Eichner stands out as a character that immediately dominates screen whenever he’s on it. He occupies a scene stealing role and is an immensely interesting character. As the season progresses, he reveals a surprisingly dynamic character. With the chance to showcase his dramatic talent, Eichner makes the most of his opportunity. Eichner flexes his acting muscles, and this should help to break him out of potential typecasting in the future.

Cheyenne Jackson is also solid in the season, starring as a psychologist for Paulson’s Ally. There seems to be a darkness working below the surface. Knowing the series, it would be a surprise if he stays a positive influence on Ally. There is a clear link to one of the past seasons, with John Carrol Lynch reprising his role as “Twisty the Clown” from season 4. In limited screen time, Lynch pops as truly horrific. It’s an interesting way to link the proceedings to previous characters, and is wildly effective to add real scares to the season.

There are some interesting dynamics at play in this season, even if the show is unwilling to kick some of Murphy’s worst tendencies. Clown sex scenes, campy costumes, and sex toys are prevalent at times in the show. The sets and costumes also build in these messages, and their exaggeration makes the show feel inauthentic at times.

At the same time, it does deliver some strong commentary about the left as well. It confronts the infighting within the liberal community, especially in regards to the “PC police” and Bernie wing of the party. Liberal characters receive physical and verbal attacks for lacking progressive ideals. Some utilize white privilege to escape justice. The dynamic at play that seeks to showcase the negatives that arise when infighting occurs.

“American Horror Story: Cult” is undeniably one of the most unique entries in the series. There’s also little doubt it will be its most polarizing. Some will undeniably see this as its strongest, while others may see it as a drastic misstep.  It’s not quite apolitical in its proceedings, although it believes it is on some level. More directly, the series confronts the fears that exist on both sides of the political spectrum. While the series is far from scary, it replaces those frights with a healthy dose of satire. Whether you buy into the satire is another story entirely.

What do you think? Does “American Horror Story: Cult” rise to the occasion? Let us hear in the comments below! 

American Horror Story: Cult” premieres on September 5th, 2017 on FX. It airs weekly on Tuesday nights.

GRADE: (★★★)