It is a testament to the creative power and ambitions of television drama these days that the new fall season kicks off early with a wildly imaginative horror-political-satire series that is emphatically about the Trump era.
American Horror Story: Cult (starts Tuesday, FX, 10 p.m.) is crazy, hilarious and out of control. That's what usually happens when Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk cook up an American Horror Story season. The hell with anything small-scale, the hell with squeamish viewers. Throw in blood, body parts and get the story as steamy as possible. This season is the wildest ride in years and when Murphy promised, cryptically, a few months back that this season would be about the presidential election, he sure meant it.
In broad terms – and the show is very, very broad – Cult is a sometimes savage and sometimes sympathetic satire of people who were truly disturbed by the election of Trump. Especially those people that have gone slightly loopy since the U.S. election night. The series opens on that night. In a cozy, chic suburban home, Ally (Sarah Paulson) and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), watch results with increasing anxiety and disbelief. Ally, in particular, loses it. "I don't believe it until Rachel Maddow tells me," she says. Nearby, a young woman, Winter (Billie Lourd), who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign, is coming apart. "What's with CNN for not giving a trigger warning before announcing the result?" she wails.
But, there's another character who is watching Trump's victory and he's way pleased. That's a cuckoo white dude, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), who is so excited he attempts sex with the TV he's watching. Kai is your sullenly angry Trump supporter who sees the victory as a triumph and an excuse to unleash all his rage against women and minorities. He is, in fact the "cult" of the title. He's all set to lead a movement that celebrates fear and anger, and his one, single follower is, in fact, Winter. Whether she's turned into a cult follower by the Trump victory or just turned on by Kai's rage isn't clear.
A lot isn't clear in this AHS and it is meant to be that way – this is an outrageously vicious take on those frightened of Trump and those inspired by him. There's a scene in the opening episode that features Ally shopping alone in a supermarket. It is inauguration day. The only cashier working is a Trump supporter. "We finally got a real leader," he says cheerfully. Ally is then set upon by marauding gangs of clown murderers. She fights them off with what she's got to-hand – a bottle of rosé wine.
Turns out, a bottle of rosé isn't all that effective against marauding clowns who are stand-ins for Donald Trump. But that's the joke. And then, well, there are more jokes at the expense of those lefty Democrats. When Winter turns up and applies for the job of taking care of Ally and Ivy's kid – who is named Ozymandias – she knows exactly what buttons to push. "The proudest moment of my life is when Lena Dunham retweeted me," she says. "I got almost 6,000 followers from that." Winter is not a nice person, it turns out.
This season is probably the most accessible to those who are not usually willing to ride along with Murphy's loud, rude horror extravaganzas. It is certainly twisted but much less perverse than some of the previous iterations of the anthology series. It is absolutely clear what he's doing and it's not subtle – he is mocking both those fearful of what Trump unleashed and, simultaneously, those who feel empowered by Trump to discharge their bigotry and hate. Throughout, there are roaming bands of evil clowns, and the clowns are Trump incarnate. Or not, depending on your turn-on.
But, are the clowns real? Is the biggest, baddest one just Twisty the deranged clown from a previous season of American Horror Story? Might be they are just figments of the vivid imagination of Ally and her little son. See, Ozymandias is really into horror comic books that feature murderous clowns. If you have your wits about you, it becomes clear the clowns aren't real and Ryan Murphy, in his mischief, is telling viewers that Trump is the real clown. A dangerous clown, but not a murderous one. It's what he inspires people to do and feel that's dangerous.
Sarah Paulson, Alison Pill and Evan Peters are excellent, enjoying the broad strokes of the script with relish. You need a strong stomach for the truly broad strokes of this outing of AHS. And it's not just the gore and blood and perverse sex. It's the unbridled viciousness of the mockery. No jerk, pro-Trump or anti-Trump, is left untouched in this often unhinged but heartening act of fevered and fun artistry.