This story contains spoilers through Episode 1 of American Horror Story: Cult.
Your fears are all founded, horror stories always say. The monster really is under the bed. That closet does contain a killer. The glint in your child’s eye is a demon.
Or, as in the case of American Horror Story: Cult—take whatever nightmares, whatever worst-case scenarios, that the election of Donald Trump planted in your mind. They’re all coming true.
The seventh season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX anthology series may mark the first mass-market filmed fiction to tackle the Trump era head-on. Tuesday night’s premiere episode opened on the evening of November 8, 2016, spiraling into a riff on the way fear, perception, and plain cruelty shape public life in this moment. As is often the case with Horror Story, the show has hit on an intriguing high concept, and its first few episodes are compulsively watchable. As is also often the case, incoherence and overreach threaten to topple a premise already teetering on the edge of exploitation.
Sarah Paulson heartily plays the brittle Ally Mayfair-Richards, a mascot for liberal panic. The first horror scene of the show takes place at the diversely attended election-night viewing party held in her and her wife’s tasteful, Crate and Barrel-ized home. As it dawns on Ally that neither The Huffington Post nor Rachel Maddow nor Nate Silver can reverse what’s happened, the music rumbles ominously and Paulson shrieks as if her fingernails are being removed with pliers. Her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), tries to console her with breathing exercises. Their young son, Oz (Cooper Dodson), clutches his stuffed animal in the other room and listens to her screams. Early on, the show seems to ask, What is the adult world’s present hysteria doing to the kids?