From the opening scene, the creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, heap contempt upon their characters by making them vapid renderings of vapid stereotypes. First up is Leslie Grossman playing a socialite helpfully named Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt. On the hunt for Instagram likes, she relies on her hairdresser, Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters), and her assistant, Mallory (Billie Lourd), for such useful tips as the hot trend of the past few hours online being cold-pressed juice. It takes only very light cajoling by those lackeys for Coco to abandon her husband (Billy Eichner) and instead bring them into the bunker her family has reserved four spots in. This is broad satirical stuff, sure, but it’s notable that the show’s writers can’t be bothered to reach past punch lines about our own world’s fads of five years ago. Nor do they rely on anything but the most ubiquitous of the Dynasty memes when introducing Joan Collins’s character, Evie Gallant.
A sick thrill does accompany the depiction of the final hour of the old world: There’s a good reason that the end of days is one of the sturdiest tropes around. Of course, viewers have all seen it before—the packed freeways, the screaming sirens, the panicked newscasts. But there’s something oddly comforting about watching what might have ensued if that Hawaii missile-alert scare earlier this year wasn’t a scare at all. For a hint of relatable pathos, we meet the Campbells, a picturesque nuclear family whose home is visited by agents saying they’re taking away the oldest son, Timothy (Kyle Allen)—moments after he’s found out he’s been accepted to UCLA—to a survival bunker because of his genetic fitness.
It’s in that bunker that the larger story of the season, it would appear, begins to unfold. Minimalist, neo-Gothic, and unelectrified, the digs are more Castlevania than Fallout. Sarah Paulson’s Wilhemina Venable and Kathy Bates’s Miriam Mead, severe representatives of the shadowy “collective” that planned the facility, preside over a new stratified society where the elites wear purple and the workers wear gray. The first atrocity witnessed is the execution of two such workers for having unsanctioned sex, hinting that a Handmaid’s Tale–esque retro-futuristic tale of brutal tyranny awaits.
Not that being an elite looks much fun, either. All the “purples” do is sit around wearing frilly clothes, sans books or TV, with one song playing on repeat over the radio. Every night they meet for dinner—no excuses for being late when there’s nothing else to do, Venable says—where they each feast on a single, tiny nutrition cube. Venable and Mead, it quickly becomes clear, have a sadistic streak and an ulterior motive, and get to messing with the elites both psychologically and physically. Yet, except for one overlong cannibalism gag, no memorable action results: Eighteen months pass with nary a shift in the social dynamics.