Everyone processes grief differently. Some drink. Some smoke. Some buy beauty products and make kale salads. If you’re Ryan Murphy, disappointed and saddened by the 2016 presidential election that saw Donald Trump rise to power over Hillary Clinton, you cope the only way you know how: by making television. At its beginning, AHS: Cult takes a real grab bag of current news events and mushes them into a convoluted mess of a show that can’t get its head straight about whether or not its satire or stone-faced social commentary.
In the first episode, all we see from the premiere of AHS: Cult is a lot of exposition. Kai (Evan Peters) plays a blue-haired, MAGA-loving Trump supporter who preaches fear as an ersatz purge for society’s ills— a hard reset. Ally (Sarah Paulson), a sensitive, liberal snowflake who refers to the 44th President as “Barack,” watches the results from her bougie home that she shares with her wife, Ivy, screaming and sobbing as if her own child had died. A fun twist about Ally’s character that should not be glossed over, but is so ludicrous in context that I laughed out loud: a resident of Michigan, her vote was a protest vote, for Jill Stein.
The malaise that fell over various parts of the country post-election is amped up for Ally—Trump’s victory means that her old phobias, which she’d previously learned to manage, are now rising to the surface. Trump’s win was essentially a huge trigger for her and now she sees clowns everywhere—in the grocery store, having sex in the produce section and chasing her through the aisles on a razor scooter as she menaces her visions by brandishing a bottle of rose in her defense. There’s no one there to hear her cries—just a Trump supporter who pulls out a MAGA hat and puts it on his head to make sure anyone still watching is really, really getting the picture.
Of course, the clowns that terrorize Ally are visions... or are they? The answer to that is obvious. Imagining an anthology series at Murphy’s deft hands that explores the psychological breakdown of a woman like Paulson’s Ally—exceedingly comfortable in life but willing to assume the role of the victim—sounds exhausting but ultimately much more interesting. Instead, Cult feels a teensy bit lazy, as if he ran out of ideas. The election is not ready to be fictionalized yet; the horror of Trump’s win was immediate for some, but for many others who are not represented in Murphy’s world, the horror continues unabated.
Consider the most egregious scene of the pilot: Kai shows up drunk and slurring and sings “La Cucuracha” to a group of Latino day laborers. He pisses into a condom, ties it off and lobs it at the men in an attempt to antagonize them—which works, and they beat him up as an iPhone camera films the incident from the wings, James O’Keefe-style. Putting aside the unlikelihood that undocumented workers would risk exposure by physically assaulting a white man who dissed them, it’s especially absurd that they would do so in the months following the election, which was won partly on Trump’s insistent screeching about the wall and making racist statements about Mexicans. This scene, and many others in the pilot, were almost comical in how absolutely wrongheaded and ill-conceived they are.
The first episode of AHS: Cult was a hamfisted attempt at making serious television, but was laughable in the way a bad SNL skit is. Besides, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to effectively fictionalize current events when those events are still happening all around you, changing minute by minute. Despite this disappointing start, though, I’ll keep watching; Murphy’s work is nothing if not addictive, even when it’s schlock.