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Review: ‘American Horror Story: Cult’ Feeds Off Trump-Era Fears

The emotions at Ally’s viewing party will be familiar to half or so of America. There’s fear, in particular about what a conservative backlash will mean for her and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill). There’s recrimination — starting with Ivy toward Ally, who, it turns out, voted for Jill Stein. (In this electoral creature feature, this is the equivalent of inviting the vampire into your house.)

Photo

Alison Pill as Ivy Mayfair-Richards.

Credit
Frank Ockenfels/FX

The trauma reawakens Ally’s debilitating phobias — fear of confined spaces, holes and above all, clowns, which she begins imagining everywhere.

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But just because she’s paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s out to get her. She and Ivy have acquired a creepy babysitter (Billie Lourd) and new neighbors (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman) who keep bees and a massive stash of guns. There’s a rash of murders, the crime scenes marked with crimson happy faces.

Meanwhile, Kai is at work organizing a secret, sinister movement — and he has a thing for face paint. Send in the clowns.

This is not the first time this anthology series, from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, has visited the big top for scares. A murderous clown (John Carroll Lynch) figured into the fourth season, “Freak Show,” and he reappears in “Cult.” (The film remake of Stephen King’s clown chiller “It” crams itself into the pop-culture Volkswagen the same week.)

“Cult” is more satirical than past seasons, maybe to complicate the idea that it’s simply one more Hollywood product earnestly beating up on Mr. Trump. And while Ms. Paulson and Mr. Peters commit to their characters’ belief in their own derangements, “Cult” ends up rendering all political sides as caricatures.

The liberals are stereotyped as privileged, self-dramatizing and pretentious. When Ally has a panic attack in her car, that car is naturally a Prius. Another character complains that CNN didn’t precede the election results with a trigger warning.

Kai, meanwhile, is all volatile rage, a fan of chaos as much as of Mr. Trump. (His disciples are not exclusively Trump supporters.) He rants at city council meetings and nurses frustrated ambitions. “There is nothing in this world more dangerous than a humiliated man,” he says. But he’s so purely, obviously menacing that he’s not interesting, and therefore not especially scary.

Still there’s something in the core premise — a woman’s fear that her town is full of hidden enemies and terrors — that captures something unsettling about the election’s aftermath.

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The 2016 campaign was ugly, intense and personal. There was an appeal to tribe and a vitriol that simply wasn’t equal on both sides. (“Trump that bitch!” “Lock her up!”) To the extent that “Cult” has something to say about Trumpism, it casts it less as a political movement than an atavistic one.

The sense that the election unleashed a national mania has only grown as we’ve seen neo-Nazis and open racists march, chant and kill in Charlottesville. They don’t represent all Trump voters. But that doesn’t stop Americans from looking at other Americans — neighbors, strangers, the grocery-store clerk — and thinking: What’s inside them? What are they OK with? Who are they, really?

“Cult” is likely just one of the first series to ask these questions directly, now that the TV production calendar has caught up to Mr. Trump’s election. (Mr. Murphy has said “Cult” would have had the same theme if Hillary Clinton had won, but it’s hard to imagine it playing with the same urgency.)

In the coming season of Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” a Vietnamese-American woman playing a nurse at a Civil War re-enactment is ethnically insulted by one of the participants and attributes it to his “having permission now to be racist.” In Hulu’s comedy “Difficult People,” Billy (also played by Mr. Eichner), who is gay, receives a “conversion therapy kit” from Mike Pence.

Social issues have long been a subtext of horror, from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Get Out.” A big problem with “Cult” is that its subtext is also text — it’s about today’s politics metaphorically and literally — and the way it deploys a barrage of hot-button topics, from immigration to stand-your-ground laws, is scattershot and glib.

The aspect of “Cult” that feels most powerfully of the moment is not its overt politics but Ally’s hallucinations. It’s another in a series of recent TV stories (“Legion,” “Mr. Robot,” “Westworld”) in which characters’ (and the viewers’) perceptions can’t be trusted, where the idea of objective reality itself is under attack.

Ally’s phobias are feeding her fake news, which is indistinguishable from the actual danger around her. Sometimes she’s seeing things; other times she’s being manipulated to believe she’s seeing things. Overwhelmed with anxious stimuli from her subconscious and from the news cycle, she doesn’t know what’s real.

Is she going crazy, or has the world? “Cult,” in its messy way, suggests that two things can be true at once.

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