Oh, Charlie Manson, who could have imagined your shadow would be thrown so far, your creepy-crawly cultural presence last so long? You did, I suppose, though possibly it has not been quite in the way you figured.
Manson is the ruling spirit in “Cult,” the latest installment in the Ryan Murphy-Brad Falchuk FX franchise “American Horror Story,” premiering Tuesday. Putting “American” in your title can signify seriousness or satire, to promise a defining look at how we are as a nation – for good, but more likely more for ill. Or, as in “Wet Hot American Summer,” to mock the titling itself.
Indeed, it’s something of a tired strategy. (Murphy and Falchuk also use it for their “American Crime Story” anthology series.) But “Cult,” which is set around the 2016 election in an upscale Michigan suburb, is specific about its state-of-the-nation intentions, adapting a Manson-esque scenario for the Age of Trump. “Cult” seems meant to describe a sort of political support as well as the narrative business of the story.
“The revolution has begun!” declares a weedy young man named Kai (Evan Peters, one of many “AHS” able stock players) as Trump is declared the winner. Across town, Ally (Sarah Paulson) is panicking. “I won’t believe anything until I see Rachel Maddow declare it,” she cries. “She’s the only one I trust.” Nate Silver and the Washington Post are attacked, in ripe language, for their bad math.
Ally, her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) – a restaurateur, almost inevitably – and their little boy are a picture of the kind of progressive modernity Trumpworld wants to negate. But the creators are carefully inclusive; this is not exclusively an attack on the side the creators presumably voted against. (Murphy held at least one fundraiser for candidate Hillary Clinton.) There are jokes about trigger warnings and Etsy addiction and not allowing cisgender names for pets; support for Clinton is no inoculation here against doing evil. Even so, “Cult” feels superficial as political commentary, its points so obvious and aggressively delivered that it feels at times close to self-parody. It’s hard to know how seriously to take it.
Certainly there are parallels to explore between the Web-fed fantasies of today’s post-Obama alt-right and the drug-addled paranoia of the late 1960s, when the high hopes and good vibes of the Summer of Love collapsed into leftist millennial militancy. Manson’s reading of the Book of Revelation and the Beatles’ “White Album” inspired the murders his followers committed, meant to trigger an apocalyptic race war after which the “Family” would emerge from its underground desert bunker to rule the world. It’s not a long hop to the anarchy in the U.S.A. that Steve Bannon sells.
It is immediately clear that Kai will be our villain, or a villain anyway. Like Manson, he does not get his hands dirty but does his work by remote control; like Manson, he creates trust by giving his people something that feels like honesty, that plays to their frustrations, that exploits and fills in the holes in their sense of self. Not everything he says about the state of the world is unreasonable. As usual in such fictions, he is a micromanaging mastermind rather than, as is more likely in life, a cagey opportunist.
As far as the horror story itself, Murphy and Falchuk quickly turn the volume up to 11 and for the most part leave it there. (Whatever else is happening in the story, the mayhem in Ally’s phobia-filled head — she had felt temporarily safe during the Obama administration, but that’s all over now — is nearly unrelenting.) Still, four hours in — as much as was available to review — little happens that could reasonably be called unexpected.
We have been down these roads so often that there is a sense that the chills are academic. There are scary clowns and a dangerous nanny (Billie Lourd) and weird people (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman) moving in next door. Ally — the mentally troubled person people are less apt to believe when she starts reporting crazy things — is perfectly textbook. One may find oneself more disturbed by what the writers are doing to their characters than what the characters, poor pawns that they are, are doing to one another.
Still, people may be scared even by what they know is coming, just because they know it’s coming. And as Kai asserts, “above all, humans love fear … a fear that stands before us every day as tall as the Trump Tower.” That “American Horror Story” is now in its seventh year of high-gloss unpleasantness — and has been renewed for two more — seems to say he’s right.
‘American Horror Story: Cult’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd