This article contains spoilers through Episode 1 of FX’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse.
Stupidity is an ingredient in most horror-movie experiences. Every “Don’t go in there!” screamed at the screen recognizes that what’s bent about the world depicted isn’t just that vampires exist or that serial killers wear ski masks. It’s that the people in the movie act unlike real people do. This is, of course, also the case across fiction, including in zany comedies and pulpy thrillers. But few works ask for the psychological suspension of disbelief like FX’s American Horror Story, the maddening and occasionally great genre mash-up that has become a wobbly tentpole of this TV era.
Judging by its season premiere Wednesday, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the eighth installment of the series that resets with new characters and settings every time, promises to be the dumbest Story yet. That’s not to say its premise isn’t plausible: Nuclear missiles have been launched worldwide, and a text alert to Los Angeles residents warns that they have an hour until their metropolis is a crater. A select few—the rich and the genetically excellent—scramble for hidden bunkers that have been prearranged for them. Aboveground, fiery destruction appears assured. But underground, a scarcity of resources and an overabundance of prima donnas enable other horrors.
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.
FX has hyped Apocalypse as the ultimate treat for Story fans, promising to bring back characters from the first season (set in a house haunted by hot ghosts) and the third (about a coven of sassy witches). Those earlier installments did indeed provide the scary, silly, and moving highlights of a franchise whose eternally promising conceit has been undermined by sloppy tonal shifts and plotting. The Apocalypse premiere can barely muster even the baseline bonkers, though: Forgoing the directive to terrify, it relies on first-draft camp comedy. Most troubling is that by wiping the Earth and heading below ground, Murphy and Falchuk are betting they can construct a coherent new world according to their tastes and imagination. But eight seasons in, their stores of those resources appear as barren as California in nuclear winter.