Kathy Bates
Photo: FX

Welcome to the world of American Horror Story: Apocalypse. And… now it’s gone. After last year’s so topical it hurts tale of political outrage and the terrifying rise of angry men on the internet, this year’s story of total annihilation seems like the natural conclusion, and should feel just as timely. Instead, it just feels sort of stale.

The season opens on a modern day L.A., or maybe L.A. 10 years ago, when an aspiring Instagram influencer like Coco (Leslie Grossman) could receive a hot tip from her personal assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd) about the new trend sweeping the city—cold-pressed juices. The quiet day at the beauty parlor is shattered by a collective blare from cell alerts; a nuclear bomb is headed for LA. The 2012-esque (the movie, not the end of the world that never came) exodus seems like a rehashing of every apocalyptic movie made in the last decade, with everything from a newscaster’s tearful goodbye to his kids to Coco’s decision to leave her boyfriend behind (Billy Eichner, in a short but sweet cameo) plays out with little real drama and even less tension. When Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters, Coco’s hairdresser in ironically one of his worst AHS wigs) finally delivers the end of days news to his grandma (Joan Collins), her comically blasé attitude barely registers as off-base. When the four get on an unmanned plane just in time to watch a mushroom cloud erupt over L.A., it’s hard to tell if any of the characters even have the emotional capacity to be appropriately devastated (despite Coco’s artful single tear).

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More compelling is a parallel storyline that sees a family ripped directly from the pages of a JC Penney catalog barely have time to celebrate their oldest sons acceptance to UCLA before the sirens start and poor Timmy (Kyle Allen), along with every other stressed out senior watching the show, realizes it doesn’t matter how many AP classes you took when the world is about to end. Just as the family goes in for their last group hug, vaguely governmental people show up with good (and hilarious) news that Timmy’s getting an all expenses paid trip to a bunker, thanks to his special DNA which they know about because he sent away for an ancestry kit. Another compelling reason to find out if you’re really as Italian as you think you are. Timmy waits out the blast with another youth, Emily (Ash Santos), before they’re shipped off to a more permanent safe house looked over by Wilhemina Venable (Sarah Paulson). And so marks the real start of this season, because what is AHS before Paulson comes on the scene to glower?

For a world where everything is literally poison, the safe house feels oddly free of danger. This might be the first AHS premiere that doesn’t provide at least one jump out of your seat moment. The teens with the particularly shiny DNA learn the safe house is run by The Collective (A+ for dystopian naming), the special (or rich) there become the purples, because The Collective obviously did their history homework and learned about the color purple and royalty, while the servants wear grey, because those are the laws of dystopia. The rules are somewhat frustratingly simple for this early in the season—no leaving, lest you get contaminated and grow an extra foot, and no sex. Which is an especially mean rule considering there is definitely a vibe going on between Emily and Timmy, and no one thought to leave some books or magazines in the bunker to pass the time.

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The first glimmer of intrigue, rather than the not-so-compelling tension of simmering boredom is the season’s first reveal—Ms. Venable and her more murderous sidekick Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates) aren’t really acting on the orders of The Collective. Rightly assuming it’s hard to give orders when you’re separated by great lengths of deadly, decimated earth, they’ve taken full autonomous control of the bunker, which leads to the kind of questions that can propel viewers into the rest of the season. Were the class distinctions, worthy and not, purple versus grey, a provision of The Collective, or something Ms Venebel though up on her own? Why doesn’t she want the people of the bunker to have sex? If she and Miriam are rebelling by donning purple, how are there dresses there that fit them perfectly?

Of course, all their plotting might end up meaning nothing. Just when things between the bunker dwellers reach a boiling point, a fancy Anne Rice vampire (no one else would have that long flowing hair and that eyeshadow) shows up with a new twist! The bunker is in peril, but some spots have just opened up in an actually safe safe house. But they’ll have to prove they’re worthy first.


Stray observations

  • Would there really be that level of air raid siren noises if the end was coming for L.A.? Beyond the text alert sounds, where were all those alarms coming from?
  • “Stu is the stew,” is a fantastic pun, and also inevitable. It’s like these people have never seen Rocky Horror—you don’t eat things served to you by creepy people immediately following a death. It was probably definitely Stu, but Ms. Venable low-key denying it opens up the possibility that it wasn’t him, and she wanted her dinner guests to jump to Sweeney Todd conclusions just to mess with them.
  • Kathy Bates’ vampire look is the best look in the house.
  • It’s kind of fantastic that a show with an obviously big production budget did nothing to mark what the passage of 18 months would do to the people in the bunker beyond Coco’s hair getting bigger.

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