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American Horror Story: Cult is either very self-aware, very silly, or both

The latest chapter of FX’s anthology series brings black comedy to the 2016 election. Also, clowns!

These clowns voted for Trump.
FX

When American Horror Story has something to say, it doesn’t just say it. It douses its message in gasoline, drops a match, and leans forward leering, “DO YOU GET IT NOW?”

American Horror Story: Cult follows in that tradition, but this time, the FX horror anthology is bringing its metaphorical sledgehammer down on politics. Whether Cult is trying to scare viewers or make them laugh, it’s never subtle about it.

The latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s horror franchise — which premieres September 5 with “Election Night” — isn’t exactly good, but it is undeniably fascinating. The show was, after all, one of the first to not only be developed after Donald Trump was elected president, but to be specifically about Donald Trump being elected president. It zeroes in on one rich Michigan suburb imploding in the wake of the 2016 election, examining a microcosm of the boiling tensions now scalding the country, and promises to spare no one under its microscope.

All the while, American Horror Story maintains its signature commitment to keeping horror weird. Sarah Paulson’s character, for instance, is haunted by clowns who are probably very real serial killers, but her wife Ivy (Allison Pill) is almost as concerned about her voting for Jill Stein in a swing state. Meanwhile, Evan Peters plays a blue-haired anarchist who’s so excited about the election results that he instinctively humps the TV announcing Trump’s victory, before launching his own plans to take over the town he feels has disrespected him for too long.

Despite a brief callback to its Carnival season’s homicidal clown Twisty, Cult won’t be trafficking in any supernatural mysteries — which marks a first for American Horror Story. On Cult, all the villains are human. All the horror comes from the fractured, sparking minds of people lost in paranoia and bone deep terror of what other humans are capable of — and, significantly, so does a lot of the humor, strewn throughout the show like its many wandering clowns.

Cult tries hard to straddle the line between horror and satire, and to be both relevant and shocking in its relevance. The end result half-succeeds, swerving between exaggerated satire and eye-rolling drama. It makes for some messy TV, funny and bizarre and uncomfortable to watch — which, to be fair, is exactly how Murphy and Horror Story tend to like it.

Cult is at its best when satirizing rich white liberals

FX

As the town’s resident chaos fanatic Kai (Peters) is taking cues from Trump to prey on everyone’s insecurities for power, the rest of Cult’s regular characters are rich white liberals spinning out in their desperation to understand this new reality.

Paulson’s conflicted character Ally (get it?) is a purposeful embodiment of the privileged liberal of Trump voter nightmares. She’s rich, married to a woman, and won’t believe the election results until she hears it from Rachel Maddow. (“She’s the only one I trust!”) But she’s also chronically paranoid and fighting her debilitating clown phobia, which at one point manifests itself in a nightmare supermarket sequence that finds her brandishing a bottle of rosé at two clowns having sex on the fruit display. (American Horror Story gonna American Horror Story!)

At moments like this, or the one where Ally and Ivy’s new babysitter Winter (Billie Lourd) blasts CNN for not issuing a trigger warning when it announced Trump’s victory, Cult’s satire is as bluntly effective as dropping an encyclopedia on an ant; it proves particularly effective when they get judgmental new neighbors played by sharp comedic actors Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman (who long ago worked with Murphy on the viciously funny Popular).

All this material provides some of the most overtly funny moments the show’s ever had — turns out it can work great as one of Murphy’s black comedies — and makes clear that these people are ones the creative team knows how to lampoon. The jokes at the expense of white liberals are as pointed as they are obvious, from Winter mourning the fact that getting retweeted by Lena Dunham (a future Cult guest star) wasn’t enough for her to help elect the first woman president, to Ally screaming and sobbing about “what’s going to happen to Merrick Garland?!” (Paulson does a lot of screaming and sobbing this season.)

And when Ally starts revealing how shallow her concern for people other than herself truly is, and how she was convinced the world “righted itself” when “Barack” was elected, her gobsmacked words have a slicing edge that indicts her obliviousness — but it’s also a little tricky to know whether the show realizes that’s what it’s doing.

Cult is either very silly and self-aware, or very silly and oblivious. That difference matters!

Having watched three episodes of Cult, I’m not altogether clear just how self-aware the show is. It knows that Kai is an opportunistic predator; it knows that Ally’s a hypocrite. But especially when it comes to Ally, the show’s clearest protagonist, it seems less sure about what those characterizations mean, and if they’re even fair.

Ally’s phobias, prejudices, and declarations that she has a reason to be exactly this paranoid tend to end with her being in the right. Sure, she’s losing her mind, the show says, but if you’re not, are you even paying attention? Ally is, in other words, waking up to the reality that her world is a whole lot more complicated and ugly than she or anyone around her dared to believe.

That could be a powerful statement, especially as the show keeps trying to shine a light on how people grab power (see: Kai’s fear-mongering) and grapple with forces outside their control (see: Ally’s desperation). But every time American Horror Story attempts to imbue real, pressing fear into these statements, in the way that good horror often can — think of this year’s Get Out, for example — it also gets … well, dumb, in a way I’m not certain the show realizes.

There’s nothing particularly clever or scary about Kai warning that “there is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man,” or Ally shrieking “fuck you, Nate Silver!” into the night. If dumb moments like these are self-aware, they’re at least dumb fun. If they’re not, it’s far too obvious writing that feels a lot like Cult attempting to claim insight by sole virtue of its subject matter.

So as with many Murphy projects, I found myself squinting at my screen throughout Cult trying to figure out exactly how much this show is trying to hold a mirror up to itself — or its audience — versus smashing the mirror so as to impress everyone with its sheer force.

This is nothing new for American Horror Story, which has often luxuriated in its own aesthetics and daring, rather than trying to tell a compelling story. But the show’s “let’s just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” instinct gets a lot more complicated — and frankly, weirder in a distracting way — when it’s applied to something as immediate and relatable as our culture’s own fraying reality.

American Horror Story airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern time on FX.