Three episodes into the seventh season of American Horror Story: Cult, and co-creator Ryan Murphy’s vision for a relevant take on the current American psyche is off to a really bad start. After six seasons of fictional and historically based “horror,” American Horror Story has dipped its toes into contemporary politics — and it’s drowning, determined to take its viewers down with it.
American Horror Story: Cult is not the show America needs right now. Lauding the extremes of both sides of the current political spectrum, Cult revels in ridiculous stereotypes, resulting in a black-and-white (or, rather, red-and-blue) view of the political landscape. Rather than letting viewers engage with this thing we call politics in a meaningful, cathartic way, the show results in a damaging, ostracizing rhetoric at a time when people should be more involved than ever.
Chiefly, it’s damaging because it’s dumb. Cult stretches its characters so thin across these stereotypes that they resemble parody, not any sort of relatable, relevant people. No one needs to be reminded so starkly of the hatred and fear going on in the United States right now. American Horror Story isn’t smart enough to count as commentary, which means it’s going for the pure entertainment factor. And the current political climate is not for your entertainment.
The first episode of the season, “Election Night,” opens on November 8, 2016, with Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) screaming in agony over Donald Trump’s win. Not far away, Kai (Evan Peters) celebrates by humping the television and covering his skin with a Cheetos-based paste while babbling on about the power of fear.
No, you didn’t hallucinate that particular bit of perverse weirdness.
These two characters, the extremes for their respective sides (Ally the delicate liberal and Kai the hateful conservative), are the main focus of the season and the ugliest stereotypes possible. By forcing viewers to follow these infuriating people around with every episode, Cult only fuels the hate.
Kai, played by consistent fan-favorite AHS actor Peters, is a fear-mongering heretic who, apparently, wants to start his own suburban cult by taking advantage of people’s worst fears. His love of Trump’s win isn’t so much a love for the man or his policies but for the dread it sparked across the country.
Using President Trump’s hateful language about immigrants (especially Mexicans) being criminals, rapists, and thugs, Kai starts to amass a small following after filming himself being beaten by a group of migrant workers (who he tricked into attacking him, by the way).
It’s not just fear that Kai (and therefore AHS) is cashing in on; it’s the rampant xenophobia normalized by the current political state. And while the hope seems to be that the majority of AHS viewers will understand that Kai is the bad guy here since he’s the one running a suburban terrorist group, the show is, once again, not intelligent enough to turn Kai into commentary. Instead, he’s mildly entertaining while failing to be thought-provoking. But, sadly, he still manages to be the best character on the show.
Because in direct opposition to Kai is Sarah Paulson’s Ally, a soft, easily-triggered liberal lesbian. Ally, who has a handful of convenient phobias such as clowns (coulrophobia) and trypophobia (fear of clusters of small holes), is targeted by Kai’s hoard of wannabe terrorists for the first three episodes.
Murphy’s parody of the “overreacting liberal” is slightly more grounded in reality than Kai’s version of the white supremacist, but it still doesn’t achieve anything real. It’s still a parody. Ally and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), have an outrageously-named son, Ozymandias (who, thankfully, goes by “Oz” most of the time), whom they protect with rabid helicopter-parent efficiency. They also run a locally sourced restaurant and butchery and revel in their holier-than-thou liberalism. Their actions, including Ally’s vote for third-party candidate Jill Stein in the presidential election, invoke eye rolls and little else. Ally is endlessly frustrating, so much so that even the beloved Paulson can’t do anything to make her enjoyable onscreen.
American Horror Story: Cult strives for relevance and to scare as many people as possible by oversimplifying and then exacerbating the current political landscape. Conservatives scream racial slurs as liberals fight about the correct way to be a “good liberal.”
None of this is entertaining; it scary, and not in the way horror should scare anyone. Cult — and its attempts to find entertainment in a subject so deadly serious to millions of people — isn’t what we need right now.
American Horror Story: Cult is airing on Tuesday nights on FX.