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American Horror Story is fun again with 1984

Emma Roberts
Screenshot: American Horror Story: 1984
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Maybe it’s a sign of our dark times that a show that involves so much s’more-side bloodshed can seem like light TV. Or maybe it’s just the fact that after the last two seasons of American Horror Story reminded its viewers, with increasingly less subtlety, that they were already living in the darkest timeline, with or without the existence of the antichrist, that anything offering up simple gore without much psychological trauma is bubbly by comparison.

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It seems like the showrunners got a note over the summer that the audience was having a hard time remembering the exact subtitle of each season, because this year’s audience will never forget, at least at any point while watching the pilot, that the year, and season, is 1984. The ‘80s references come so hard and fast the start of the show almost reads like a sketch sending up ‘80s nostalgia, from the neon font introducing the cast to “Cruel Summer” playing within the first fifteen minutes.

After losing some of its core cast, the lead mantle (lighter in an ensemble piece like AHS has always been, but still there) has gone to Emma Roberts, playing against her traditional AHS type as the sweet, shy, lace-collar wearing Brooke. Roberts at her cattiest has given AHS some great moments, and has given the internet one of its most important GIFs. But here, dressed in pastels, it’s hard to be drawn in by Roberts, even in moments that seem to point towards her imminent demise.

Billie Lourd’s Montana, on the other hand, is fantastic, from her dead-serious delivery of her dream to be a competitive aerobics master, to her explanation of why she sleeps with a knife under her pillow (“I have a suspicious nature.”) It’s hard to tell among the men and their crop tops, what is deliberate blandness to match the stock characters of the slasher flicks that inspired the season, and what is the result of just about every Murphy favorite on an indefinite AHS hiatus.

The 1984 Summer Olympics is a reference that does a ton of heavy lifting, from propping up the plot to mixing things up style-wise. A group of gym buddies deciding on a whim to drop everything for three months to become camp counselors doesn’t make sense unless they explain they’ll do anything to escape the craziness the games will bring with them. And a camp’s worker pool would dry up if the nearby city suddenly had better-paying temp work created because of the Olympics. And after shot after predictable shot of “camp staff watched from the perspective of a murderer hanging out in the bushes” and other slasher flick cliches, it was refreshing to see the mash-up of a panic-stricken Brooke running from Mr. Jingles while athletes ran during the Olympic’s opening ceremony.

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The big question as the pilot closes with the crazed killer having escaped from the asylum, running loose in the rain near a bunch of buzzed camp counselors who really, really want to get into each other’s short shorts isn’t what comes next. Anyone who has seen even a snippet of a classic horror film from the ‘80s knows what comes next. It’s how what comes next fills another ten or so episodes when it usually only covers the second half of a 90-minute movie.

That answer might be found in Brooke’s late-night assailant (Zach Villa) showing up at the camp. But his attack earlier on in the episode, taking a ring the audience knows must have special importance to Brooke because she took it out of her jewelry box just to gaze at it as she heavy sighed, felt kind of clumsy and not all that scary even before he started name-dropping Satan. It was the one moment of the episode that seemed to call back to the American Horror Story of the past. Hopefully, the rest of the season sticks to a feeling of simpler times, when knife-wielding serial killers cut off the ears of young campers just for the thrill of it, no politics or theology to make bloodshed on screen more complicated than it needs to be.

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Stray observations

  • Why is there a “release all the prisoners” button at the asylum? And how did Mr. Jingles get a newspaper? If his room only has a mattress and the one ripped out article, where did he put the rest of the paper when he was done? The showrunners should know there are only two kinds of shows left on TV—Ryan Murphy projects and crime dramas. They can’t be leaving these kinds of inconsistencies around.
  • Mr. Schue is back! Murphy’s Wikipedia page has a handy table charting which actors he has cast in multiple projects; it’s good to see Matthew Morrison join the two-timer club.
  • If your camp infirmary is well-stocked enough to have professional-looking IV bags, would you have to MacGyver something to hook it on out of a hanger?
  • A unique perspective on the potential dangers of drinking—apparently those beer cans are really sharp, and dangerous when thrown by an almost Olympian.
  • For those keeping track of mysteries introduced for the season—the identity of the probably dead “hiker,” the identity of Brooke’s attacker, whether Brooke actually has avoided the “sexual revolution,” and will therefore likely be the only one to make it out of the camp alive, and what sport Chet (Gus Kenworthy) was going to compete in before he got kicked off the Olympic team.
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