American Horror Story is back — did you know? Amid the million other projects producer Ryan Murphy has been working on, he still found time to squeeze in a season of the beloved horror anthology. Like every preceding season of American Horror Story, this one follows a totally new cast of characters (with some familiar AHS actors returning, like Zachary Quinto, Denis O’Hare, and Billie Lourd) in a brand-new setting. But also like with every preceding season of American Horror Story, there are some signature Ryan Murphy-esque motifs. In this case, it’s a spooky BDSM-style figure that may be a ghost but may also be killing people.
This season’s premiere is definitely more grounded and less splashy than previous ones, even with a deep foray into BDSM culture and the leather scene, and seems to have a poignant metaphor at its core. But there is a ghost that haunts it — and not the leather-clad spectral figure that’s been following some of the characters around — that could very well undermine what the show is trying to do this season.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first two episodes of American Horror Story: NYC.]
American Horror Story: NYC takes place in the 1980s and centers around a serial killer who is targeting gay men. Hopeless romantic Adam (Charlie Carver) is worried that his missing roommate might be one of the latest victims. Unfortunately, the cops are doing nothing about it, because it’s the 1980s and they’re all pretty homophobic — except for Patrick (Russell Tovey), a gay cop who is in the closet and does want to do something, but is still reluctant to expose himself to his bigoted peers, which, like, understandable. Meanwhile, Patrick’s partner Gino (Joe Mantello), a seasoned reporter, wants to break the news not just to sell papers but to protect their community when no one else will.
If the idea of something wiping out the queer community and public officials doing nothing about it isn’t clear enough, there is also a B-plot about a doctor (Billie Lourd) who discovers an abnormal virus that is infecting deer in Fire Island — and also notices some strange symptoms in her mostly queer patients. The AIDS crisis allegory isn’t subtle, but then again, AHS is not really known for its subtlety.
Remarkably, though, AHS: NYC feels almost subdued compared to other premiere episodes of the show. Only two people die across two episodes and one of those deaths happens off screen, while the other person is poisoned in a bar. The second episode opens with a torture scene, but there isn’t a lot of gore or visual scares. The only hint of that signature AHS paranormal is the masked leather figure that may or may not be a figment of the characters’ imaginations, and it doesn’t even do much besides stand and look scary.
Instead the terror comes from how helpless the characters feel, how they know something is out there targeting them specifically, but there is nothing they can do about it, because no one will listen. When Adam rides the subway, a rambling old woman screams about something evil coming, a phrase repeated when he goes to a bohemian poetry reading later that night. It’s the dread of something sinister that makes up the horror of this season instead of the usual shock of brutal on-screen murders, spectral jump scares, or even clusters of small holes. It is more in line with some of Murphy’s other projects, particularly American Crime Story, which isn’t a horror show but still dives into darker themes. This season of AHS isn’t embracing the horror genre like usual, and in fact seems to deliberately be staying away.
This could hint at a more serious and more politicized AHS, but there is one glaring concern: The serial killer is basically a copy of Jeffrey Dahmer in a way that feels uncomfortable. We don’t explicitly know the identity of the killer (and there could be more than one), but the first two episodes certainly make it seem like it is the enigmatic Mr. Whitely (Jeff Hiller). And we don’t know much about Mr. Whitely, but we do know he is a gay man who kidnapped Gino and tortured him; he wears large aviator-style glasses that resmble Dahmer’s; his hair is parted in that same exaggerated side part; and he wears basically the same exact striped-polo-shirt outfit that Evan Peters did when he portrayed the serial killer in Murphy’s true-crime show about Dahmer.
Oh, yeah, that’s right — Ryan Murphy already told the Jeffrey Dahmer story this year, with Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The true-crime miniseries told the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who targeted gay men in the 1980s. While some critics praised the show for highlighting the victims’ stories, many of the surviving family members of Dahmer’s victims spoke out about the show’s inaccuracies and also about how they were given no notice that it was coming out.
If Whitely were simply styled to be reminiscent of Dahmer, that is one thing. But right on the heels of a controversial true-crime show about Jeffrey Dahmer, it ends up becoming a troubling meta addition that undermines the whole thing — and doubly so, because this isn’t the first time Jeffrey Dahmer has been referenced in AHS; in fact, his ghost appeared in the show’s fifth season. Murphy has included some real-life serial killers as central characters before, which just adds an uncomfortable squick factor to what could be a moving allegory. There is so much going on that it’s doubtful the show will be able to unpack it all. This is especially true when the virus plot line only came up a sprinkling of times in the first two episodes, getting introduced early on in the first one and then basically disappearing till the end of the second. There is a message here about how the system continually fails the queer community and hopefully that part can step out of the long shadow that the true-crime show casts. But AHS is not a universe known for second (or third) acts that manage to elegantly tie everything together.
Will this season of AHS be a more serious and dramatic one, grounded in reality? It’s hard to tell, especially considering how often the show runs out of steam halfway through and flubs the ending. The supernatural aspects are a big part of what makes the show so compelling, but all of that came to a head in AHS: Apocalypse and afterward, the tangled mess of mythology started to feel more obligatory and overdone than anything innovative. A footing in the real world might ground this season, but last time that happened with Cult it felt too recent and current to actually have a cathartic ending. There might be more space with the 1980s to possibly convey something meaningful and the comparatively restrained storytelling in NYC could mean a refresh of AHS conventions — if the show manages to tread the line between true-crime obsession and typical AHS supernatural shenanigans. It might seem like an easy task, but Murphy tends to go all or nothing in these regards, entwining his already twisted web of paranormal happenings even more or putting a flashy spin on real-world serial killers. Then again, being subtle goes against everything that makes the show what it is — what’s an American Horror Story season without the splashy sex and themes that are just about as discreet as the NYC subway is clean?
AHS: NYC airs on Wednesdays on FX at 10 p.m. EDT, with episodes streaming on Hulu the next day.