American Horror Story: Cult: “Election Night” Season 7 Premiere Review

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What’s scary in 2017? Is it waking up in Japan to sirens blaring and being told to seek shelter? Is it being surrounded by neo-nazis on your college campus, outnumbered as you stand for what’s right? The first six seasons of American Horror Story have played into all manner of horror, from ghosts to witches to freaks to whatever Lady Gaga did the last two years, but after a shocking past twelve months, is there really anything scarier than our current reality? That’s the fear that Cult is trying to tap into in its premiere. Well, that and clowns.

“Election Night” begins on, well, Election Night 2016 in two Michigan homes. In one, wives Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Allison Pill) comfort each other as the numbers come in, with the former howling at the screen in agony (to the show’s credit, a patron in the bar I watched the final results in reacted identically). In the other, the blue-haired Kai (Evan Peters) pelvic thrusts his television in celebration, later blending cheese puffs into powder to put on orange face. Kai isn’t the downtrodden Trump supporter who voted for him “because of jobs,” he’s one of the ones who wanted the chaos that’s followed. For Peters, terrific as usual, that means ditching any semblance of likability. Both the sympathetic psychopath of Murder House and the deliciously devious murderer of Hotel are gone in favor of a character who’s soul purpose is to make you angry while he makes your skin crawl.

But in a somewhat surprising twist, Ryan Murphy ensures that the liberal characters aren’t all saints. Ally voted for Jill Stein in the state of Michigan, because she just couldn’t trust Hillary, she yells to her wife. But since Trump’s victory, Ally’s phobias have come back in the form of vivid visions that are literally “triggered” by anything related to the man; one such vision happens just after a cashier in a deserted supermarket puts on his “Make America Great Again” hat, while another occurs after she scrolls through the president’s tweets. This satirization of the most extreme liberal sensibilities adds an extra layer to Cult that Murphy clearly hasn’t quite figured how to implement yet. Moments like these act as dark comedy in a mix of genuinely frightening filmmaking (Bradley Buecker directs the most chilling AHS premiere quite possibly since season one), but without the two intersecting in a way that indicates there’s vision behind their cohesion.

A recurring flaw in almost every season of AHS is Murphy’s eyes being bigger than his stomach. Does Cult want to investigate the fear that led to Trump’s victory? Does it want to satirize some of the more ridiculous fears that came after? Or does it want to be a killer clown spooktacular? The premiere’s tone doesn’t offer any answers, which leads to some disappointingly confused performances from some of the actors playing liberal characters, namely Paulson, who’s never seemed so miscast in any of the previous seasons. Billie Lourd as Kai’s sister and Ally and Ivy’s new babysitter similarly suffers, but the episode’s dramatic hook lands less on her than it does Paulson.

And then there’s the question of whether a show as unsubtle and historically poorly thought out should have even bestowed the responsibility onto itself to tackle our seemingly broken society. Early in the episode, which, goddammit, aired the same day Trump rescinded DACA, Ally worries to her therapist about all the friends she has who could just get carted off at any time. When the line was written, the thought might have seemed a little more hysterical, and Paulson thus delivers it with a blind, heightened anger as if she gets all her news from Refinery29. Trump might, frankly, be too unpredictably despicable for a show like AHS to afford to take any stabs at liberal anxiety at all. One day’s joke can becomes the next day’s horror, which of course only makes writing a season on this topic nearly impossible.

The fact that Cult is watchable at all is something of a victory in and of itself when you consider both the topic of its season-long arc and the show’s shaky-at-best track record. But all the premiere’s competing elements are executed well, making for a consistently entertaining hour of television that’s also never uninteresting. Now it’s just a matter of whether Murphy has learned from his mistakes and can manage to coherently string these facets together, or if the plot will convolute itself into an emotionless, scareless abyss of crappy storytelling (like just about every other season eventually has). For now, for what this premiere delivers, I have to say I’m more engaged with this show than I’ve been in a few years. But that’s not exactly a high bar to cross. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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