THE SERIES “American Horror Story: Cult”
WHERE | WHEN Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), are a happily married couple in a small Michigan city, and moms to a young son. Together they run a high-end restaurant, the Butchery, in town. Then Nov. 8, 2016, happens and they are happy no more: Will the new president strip same-sex marriage rights, for example? Meanwhile, across town, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is thrilled with the new prez. He’s a cult leader who mind-controls his followers by making them clasp pinkie fingers with him, while they confess their deepest fears. The election, meanwhile, has frazzled Ally. She needs help with her son, and hires Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd) as nanny. Then the real troubles begin. This seventh season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s “AHS” is 11 episodes (the first three were offered for review).
MY SAY There’s an old rule in television that roughly states that politics should be avoided in a prime-time series because it runs the risk of alienating half the potential audience. Clearly, Murphy never got the memo. But then Murphy never was much good with rules or memos anyway. He’s a talented iconoclast and occasional bomb thrower. “Cult” is just his latest Molotov cocktail.
Within the first three minutes, the 2016 election is served up as prime-time red meat — raw, still bloody, and with a new president-elect’s beaming face in tight focus. A fastcut of news clips reorients viewers back to that November night, then the show toggles between extreme opposite reactions as the results are announced. In one, Kai body-slams his widescreen TV like it’s just scored the game-winning touchdown. In the other, Ally melts into a puddle of tears and fury. Gasping for breath in between screams, an unimaginable future suddenly comes into focus for her: “She . . . was . . . supposed . . . to . . . WIN,” she sobs.
While the homicidal maniac in this installment is a Trump supporter, and its tormented protagonist is not (in fact, she voted for Jill Stein), the political lines — or cliches — aren’t quite as sharply focused as you might expect. Kai, a deranged libertarian anarchist, sees the election as validation of a new world order, or disorder.
What’s initially compelling about “Cult” is that it takes the paranoia from the recent election — still familiar to a not-inconsiderable slice of the electorate — and filters that through Ally’s psyche. The election is merely the flashpoint that unleashes her own demons. Like the “droogs” from “A Clockwork Orange,” a knife-wielding gang of clown psychos that suddenly begins to haunt her is an expression of her oldest fears. They aren’t necessarily in her head because of who’s in the White House.
Soon enough, she finds out otherwise. They’re real all right, and very much emboldened by the new guy in the Oval Office.
As in any “AHS,” characters are not who they appear to be. A cloud of menace envelops everyone, not just Kai. Ally’s shrink, Dr. Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), is an oblivious Dr. Feelgood who prescribes a pill for her postelection agita. The local cop (Colton Haynes) looks like Rutger Hauer’s evil replicant from “Blade Runner.” A new neighbor across the street (Billy Eichner) is a beekeeper and president of the Michigan chapter of the Nicole Kidman fan club.
Then there’s Winter, who’s an incompetent baby-sitter but fairly astute in the dark art of mind control: “People are going to believe what they want to believe,” she explains. “The trick is figuring out what they want to believe then giving it to them.”
“AHS” ditched supernatural elements in this chapter because it wanted to have a real-world immediacy, but only erratically does. Issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration and Stand Your Ground are checked off like items on a grocery list, with predictable results. They’re handled superficially, even glibly.
But the horror is what counts in any “American Horror Story,” and judging from the opening three episodes, it’s more than adequate in “Cult.” It’s also relentless, grisly and deeply warped. The real world can be a scary place, after all.
BOTTOM LINE Creepy, over-the-top, and (yup) scary.