After watching the first two episodes of Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story: NYC," it's easy to see why "AHS" alum Evan Peters skipped out this year. The show's 11th season, set in 1981, centers on a community of gay men being stalked and killed and is the only season to not feature Peters aside from Season 9, "1984." So either Peters has a thing against the '80s (although, he did appear in the first season of "Pose"), or Murphy couldn't find a way to write him in. Think about it. After topping Netflix charts for weeks in Murphy's "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story," what would he have played here? Another white guy stalking and killing gays?
As with every other season of "AHS," Murphy strategically concealed details for his latest up until the very last minute. When the title and core cast were revealed in late September, it didn't take difficult mental math to add up '80s Manhattan, Patti LuPone, Sandra Bernhard and Denis O'Hare to arrive at a general presumed theme that lands somewhere between "'Queer as Folk' if it was set in Hell" and "gays can literally never catch a break."
"New Season. New City. New Fears." This was the only description provided for "AHS: NYC" back in September, but there's nothing new about using a person's sexual identity as the basis for horror. "You're gay and you're about to be killed," is about as old hat as "You're a woman and/or a person of color and you're about to be killed." At this point, you have to stop and wonder why shows and movies about that population so often revolve around torture and murder, but the biggest scares in horror centering on straight white men and their families are either ghosts, home invasions or having your wife find out that you're a cheater.
"AHS: NYC" even manages to make the season's only three lesbians in a sea of gay men into a punchline. As I tweeted and deleted last night after watching both of the premiere episodes, Sandra Bernhard deserves better. Alternate tweet that stayed in my head until now: If Amazon Prime doesn't renew "A League of Their Own," I'm gonna throw a chair through the window of my office.
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Episode 1 of "AHS: NYC," titled "Something's Coming," opens on an airline captain named Ross (Lee Aaron Rosen) and his crew checking into an NYC hotel on a layover. After being immediately propositioned for sex by one of his female flight attendants while standing in the interior hallway of the hotel, the captain flashes his wedding ring, politely refusing, and then goes into his room to put on full leatherman regalia and strut his way to a gay sex club. Naturally, he washes up in the Hudson the next morning as a headless stump.
When police officer Patrick Read (Russell Tovey) arrives at the scene, he stands over the captain's corpse and asks the officer next to him if there was any ID on the body.
"Just this," he says, handing over a matchbook from The Brownstone, which he refers to as "a fruit stand."
"Yeah, I know what it is," Patrick says, recoiling in a way that immediately suggests he's gay and doesn't want anyone to know about it.
"Neck was severed around the fourth cervical vertebra," the coroner chimes in.
"Well, at least we know what he was doing right before he died . . . giving head," says another nearby cop.
From here we're shown the many different ways a gay man can be killed, and the ease with which the police, as the ignorant representatives for society as a whole, could not care less aside from using their deaths as the set-up for a joke.
Having watched every previous season of "AHS," I've developed a habit of combing through the scenes of each episode in search of some deeper meaning in a way that this series has not entirely earned. I'm not alone on this, I'm sure. Since Season 1, "Murder House," fans of "AHS" have stretched and grabbed for clues and theories on how one character or one season will tie into the next which, we should have now learned after 11 seasons, is apropos of nothing. Don't get me wrong, I love "American Horror Story" in a way I've previously described as being unconditional, but this isn't "Twin Peaks" we're working with here. And yet, seeing the crime scene we just went over transition to a scene in which Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd) is analyzing amoeba samples taken from a dead deer on Fire Island that show some manner of mutation, I couldn't help but think of "Red Tide," part one of last year's season, "Double Feature."
It's been a long year, and COVID has likely eaten away a good portion of my brain cells, but as I remember it "Red Tide" revolved around a pill that would either turn people into successful geniuses if they were already a little bit talented, or zombie-like vampiric ghouls if they swallowed it down without having the natural gift to back it up. I also vaguely remember a scene where the corpses of animals were shown discarded around Provincetown, where "Red Tide" was set. This is me wanting so badly for "AHS: NYC" to turn into a "Red Tide" origin story but, as I should have learned from doing this to myself before, it's probably just about exactly what everyone is already thinking: AIDS. Or at least an extra-brutal metaphor for it.
Murphy, who I should mention here is, himself, a gay man, and writers Brad Falchuk and Manny Coto punch up gay panic in "AHS: NYC" by working in not just one killer, but potentially four. We have "Big Daddy," a looming muscular man in a leather hood who kills in sex clubs, we have Mr. Whitely (Jeff Hiller), who is introduced towards the end of Episode 1 when he drugs Patrick's boyfriend, Gino (Joe Mantello) at a gay bar where he's investigating the murders for his paper, The Native, and hustles him into an awaiting car. And then we also have AIDS, or whatever the hell this mutating amoeba ends up being, and a pervy "dick with a checkbook" named Sam (Zachary Quinto) who cons men into anally penetrating themselves with chair legs while his photographer boyfriend Theo (Isaac Cole Powell) takes Mapplethorpe-esque photos. I mean, hell, Murphy, if you're gonna kill within your own community, might as well make it as big of a mess as possible. You know, for the art.
By the time we get to Episode 2, "Thank You for Your Service," we have the setup for the rest of the season. Gino comes to in Mr. Whitely's holding location and doesn't so much as have time to moan and groan before he gets hot needles shoved under his fingernails. Yes that's HOT NEEDLES.
As Mr. Whitely prepares to go to work on Gino for who knows what reason, he notices that he has a marine tattoo and that stops him in his tracks.
"A fellow brother in arms . . . you can't serve twice," Mr. Whitely says, drugging him again to put him under and wishing him well with "Thank you for your service." Having the name of an episode said in the episode is a fun air punch, even if the scene it's said in involves HOT NEEDLES.
When Gino pulls himself together the next day he reports the incident to the police, with his cop boyfriend looking on and pretending to not know him, but it's made clear yet again that they are seemingly fine with gays been being murdered and not likely to help at all.
Enlisting the help of Fran (Sandra Bernhard) and her two lesbian friends who make up the city's entire population of lesbians in this show, as well as Adam (Charlie Carver) another local gay whose roommate got nabbed by "Big Daddy," they join together to get to the bottom of what's what. Hopefully in Episodes 3 and 4 we'll learn more about the "what" and not have to see more HOT NEEDLES in the process. But knowing this show, it'll probably be something even worse, like a vivisection at the back of a Duane Reade or something.
"American Horror Story: NYC" airs back-to-back episodes Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX and next day on Hulu.