Have you ever had one of those dreams where you spend eight hours trying to find your way back home, circumventing what feels like endless obstacles and distractions to get there? In your dream rationale, your mission is clear, but suddenly your feet stop working, or your car doesn't have a steering wheel. Or, if you eventually do make it "home," it's a warped version of it and you can't get in anyway because you can't find your keys. That's what "American Horror Story: NYC" feels like so far, and I haven't yet determined if that's a good or bad thing.
"AHS" creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk knew that they were on to something when viewers reacted as favorably as they did to the show's first season, "Murder House," back in 2011, and they've remained rather formulaic in the seasons that followed in an effort to hold on to their loyal fans by not fiddling around too much with something that clearly works. This is a simple and yet effective method that showrunners, more often times than not, can't help themselves but to go against and then later regret. Good examples of this would be "Twin Peaks," which pulled viewers in with a dark mystery and then solved that mystery too soon; or "True Detective," which gave us one of the best first seasons of a show ever and then followed it up with two additional stand-alone seasons that had no hope of ever being as good as the first.
Murphy and Falchuk know what their core audience wants — light to medium horror with toe-dips into total bleakness, new themes each year with occasional throwbacks to previous seasons, and the implied promise that Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange will never be too far away. But, due to conflicts in scheduling, or the need to take a break from the show, shake-ups started happening in the cast after Season 4, "Freak Show." First we lost Lange, who did come back briefly in her role as "Murder House" character Constance Langdon for "Apocalypse" in 2018, but has made no promise to come back again. And then Paulson and Peters became less of a given starting with Season 9, "1984." But the biggest changes in "AHS" started happening last year with Season 10, "Double Feature," which veered from the show's standard format by breaking the season into two parts, "Red Tide" and "Death Valley." Although that season was, overall, a success, this huge change in format had a built-in problem because, by the time Part 2 rolled around, we'd spent so much time trying to figure out how it tied in to Part 1 that when we realized it wasn't going to, and wasn't at all supposed to, we were left disappointed over investing in a storyline that, on its own, paled in comparison to Part 1. Murphy and Falchuk's idea to do a two-part season wasn't a bad one, but it ended up feeling like one due to the lopsided quality of what we were given. You can't come out swinging with genius pill-popping vamps and then peter out to human/alien hybrids. I mean, you can. They did. But it didn't work, and robbed us of what could have been four more episodes of "Red Tide."
With "AHS: NYC," Murphy and Falchuk are making another big change in an attempt to freshen up what really doesn't need refreshing by, for the first time ever, doling out the season's episodes two at a time which, after the first four episodes, kinda feels like heaping handfuls of a big 'ol mess.
The first two episodes, "Something's Coming" and "Thank You for Your Service" set us up with the basic premise for a bunch of different premises. It's 1981 in New York and gay men are being attacked at all sides. There's "Big Daddy," the leather clad killer who may not even be real. There's the Mai Tai Killer, a former military man who drugs men and then tortures and kills them, unless they've also been in the service, such as in the case of Gino (Joe Mantello). There's a sadistic rich perv named Sam (Zachary Quinto) who lures men into his home and commits unspeakable and questionably consensual sex acts on them. There's a weaponized virus of some sort that leaves gay men covered in sores and pustules that may or may not be a metaphor for AIDS. And now, there's cats. It's all, to say the very least, a lot, which may end up being the point.
For the gay community, during this time, or any time, really, it can be hard to not feel like the whole world is out to get them. And in AHS: NYC . . . it very much is.
For the LGBTQ community in the '80s, their mere existence was seen as a threat to normie society as a whole and, in return, they faced daily danger with little help or understanding from anyone outside their own close circle of friends and family. For the gay community, during this time, or any time, really, it can be hard to not feel like the whole world is out to get them. And in "AHS: NYC" . . . it very much is.
Episode 3, "Smoke Signals," gives us a big clue that this season is a symbolic showing of how terrifying it can feel to navigate life as a gay person when Fran (Sandra Bernhard) sits with Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd) in a diner and tells her about a weaponized virus she learned of while working as a lab assistant.
"Ever heard of Operation Paperclip?" Fran asks. "It was a post-war program where the U.S. used Nazi scientists against the Russians during the Red Scare. They'd cross-breed contagions, test them on patients. Mix animal diseases with human ones. They were looking for something that could be used as a weapon."
When Hannah reminds her that all of that happened in the '50s, and asks what it has to do with now, Fran says "The Cold War is heating up. A year ago they started bringing out some of the golden oldies and testing them again."
This not only really brings me back to a theory I made in my recap of Episodes 1 and 2, that this season might be an origin story for the pill in "Red Tide" from last year's season, but hammers it in that the true theme of this current season is that being gay can be very terrifying because most everyone and everything is more foe than friend which, judging by the 2023 GOP candidates, is truer than ever.
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While the messaging in "AHS: NYC" is compact, the delivery is wider than Central Park itself. We're running from this guy, we're running from that guy. More than one villain is using public pay phones as a lure, which sure wouldn't work now. Who the hell answers the phone? I don't think I've answered my phone on purpose in 15 years. There are blackouts, disease-ridden cats scurrying about, women muttering cryptic warnings in the subway stations. And, all the while, the memory of David Berkowitz (aka the Son of Sam) still lingers in the atmosphere, waiting for a passing dog to give the next killer the go-ahead to fire at will.
Given the era and setting for this season, it was only a matter of time before we heard a name-drop for Berkowitz, and we got it in Episode 3. By 1981 the Son of Sam had already been behind bars for several years after being given six life sentences for shooting and killing six people in the NYC area, and wounding 11, but that fact didn't take away from the gut punch of hearing his name here though, and adds to the nightmarish feel of the episodes we've seen so far.
Episode 4, "Black Out," cranks the nightmare up even further when rolling outages in the sticky heat of NYC summer provide further opportunity for already illusive dangers to evade policeman Patrick (Russell Tovey) as he taps into his own sexual hungers and secrets while seeking to expose those around him. In this episode "gay panic" is shown as a literal rash that both cops and medical professionals are, as of now, attributing to cat scratch fever.
In this episode "gay panic" is shown as a literal rash . . . Gays being seen as essentially having cooties is very on the nose here.
Gays being seen as essentially having cooties is very on the nose here.
As Gino leads the hunt for the Mai Tai killer, getting captured by him once again, this time in the city hospital, the "big bad" of the previous episodes, Big Daddy, feels like the lesser of all evils, and at the center of it all is Dr. Hannah Wells who, not only seems to personally know the Mai Tai killer, but is seemingly pregnant with Adam's (Charlie Carver) baby? As we've seen in previous seasons of "AHS," including both parts of "Double Feature," children are anything but bundles of joy in this show. Having a child in the midst of abject horror? Talk about a nightmare.
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