'American Horror Story: Apocalypse': TV Review

So far, it's the least disturbing 'AHS' yet.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's annual fright-fest returns, with promised tie-ins to 'Murder House' and 'Coven,' for an initially silly look at the end of the world.

If your Twitter feed is curated anything like mine, the past week or two has been a steady string of festival-going movie critics admiring Bradley Cooper's discovery that Lady Gaga can act.

And if Ryan Murphy's Twitter feed is anything like mine, the TV auteur has probably spent the past week or two yelling into a cyber-void, "Dudes!" — I like to imagine Ryan Murphy calling the Twitter collective "dudes" — "I built an entire season of American Horror Story around Lady Gaga! It was extremely popular! SHE WON A GOLDEN GLOBE!"

Part of the lesson here, other than that movie critics don't have time to watch enough TV, is that American Horror Story has become a fundamentally fungible franchise. The eighth season, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, premiered this week, and it might as well be the anthology series' fifth or 15th season. There's a core audience that obsesses about each entry and the connections between them, but my conversations with people much more frequently revolve around which seasons they actually finished, which seasons they bailed on after two or three episodes, and how they check in on each premiere just to see what's up, without feeling any real investment. A franchise that was once visceral, shocking and disturbing has begun to feel like something creators Murphy and Brad Falchuk have outgrown, the disposable annual haunted hayride that they mount with their friends between projects of greater impact.

Nothing in Wednesday's American Horror Story: Apocalypse premiere, which debuted without any episodes sent to critics in advance, was even remotely scary or shocking. I think this is the first time I've had such a response to an AHS starter. There almost always has been an image or an idea that got under my skin, an expression of something primal and visceral buttressing the camp or the outlandishness. My guess is that things will eventually get more and more screwed up as the season goes along, and the writers will take pleasure in undermining the initial silliness. Man, though, the first episode was just a lot of silliness.

If I had to describe this season's genre, it wouldn't be end-of-the-world horror. It would be The Simpsons parodies of end-of-the-world movies, as if a seven-minute "Treehouse of Horror" installment will be spread out over a season.

The premise, such as it is, involves Los Angeles freaking about an emergency alert that turns out not to be a Hawaii-style hoax. Missiles have actually been launched and global capitals are being destroyed, and, in the panic, aspiring social media influencer Coco (Leslie Grossman) discovers that her family has booked placement in a secure bunker. With chaos ensuing on all sides, she heads for that bunker accompanied by her personal assistant (Billie Lourd), her hairdresser (Evan Peters) and her hairdresser's grandmother (Joan Collins).

The bunker turns out to be a semi-secure underground facility, maintained by a shadow group called The Cooperative, that houses a mixture of genetically ideal human specimens (including Kyle Allen's Timothy Campbell and Ash Santos' Emily) and a lot of rich people, all under the stern watch of Sarah Paulson's Wilhemina Venable and Kathy Bates' Miriam Mead, who may work for The Cooperative and may just be screwing with the guests for fun.

I call the premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse "silly," but that's hardly the worst thing in the world. The fast-moving pre-credit sequence, directed by Bradley Buecker against a deceptively sunny Los Angeles backdrop, was packed with malevolent chuckles, especially courtesy of Billy Eichner as Coco's partner Brock and then, particularly, once the incomparable Collins arrives as a socialite whose initial reaction to the pending decimation is to call it "fake news."

The bunker itself is a triumph of Gothic-meets-modern production design and spectacular costume work. The survivors have been divided into the Purples (high-priority guests) and Grays (laborers who should be grateful just to be alive), all boosted by Collins' one-liners and cheeky soundtrack use of the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" and Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After." I don't imagine Murphy and Falchuk would quibble with accusations of silliness, especially when the pilot's most allegedly disturbing scene is also its biggest joke (and a not-especially-surprising pun relating to a guy named Stew). You don't do that if your goal is anything other than giggles.

The vaunted crossing over from previous seasons, the basis of much of the pre-premiere press, is limited at first. Yes, the character played by Cody Fern near the end of the episode is a pretty major reference. But if you didn't know who he is, it wouldn't affect your understanding of the choppy premiere, which jumps forward in time and suggests an eventual tone akin to a tongue-in-cheek version of The Omega Man. Several other characters played by members of the recurring AHS ensemble feel like they could be direct or indirect callbacks to previous seasons, though they could just as easily not be. The threat of this flimsy story being consumed by Murder House and Coven references is perhaps the least interesting or appealing aspect of Apocalypse so far.

What does it all mean? So far, almost nothing. The Cult season found Murphy and Falchuk in satirical mode, tapping into post-election terror and unease. It was aggressively political and on-the-nose and left some fans frustrated, as if previous installments had trained them to be awaiting something more subtle. Apocalypse still has a bland undercurrent of Trump-era paranoia, insofar as a daily perusal of Twitter, when it isn't making you wonder why people are shocked that Lady Gaga is a capable actress, would also make you fear that the world is coming apart.

I choose to read the season as Murphy's expression of his own fears about how FX would respond to his recently signed Netflix deal. The premiere reflects Murphy's terror that he and other "desirable" creative talent would be lured into some sort of subterranean bunker by The Cooperative — Disney and its new Fox-affiliated acquisitions — and told that they can't leave until the world is inhabitable again. In the extended metaphor, these sequestered individuals of privilege and advantageous DNA are the future of humanity and of television. 

The bunker might even represent American Horror Story as a franchise, a hermetically sealed environment that Murphy can't escape, even as Pose and American Crime Story have proven that there's a vast and expansive world he'd rather be a part of. In this scenario, Paulson is playing a heavily veiled version of John Landgraf and the "canker-pus monsters beyond the gates" would be the way network and cable types attempt to portray the uncertainty represented by Ted Sarandos and Netflix. That would mean that the other occupants of the bunker represent other showrunners being kept in isolation while the old-media establishment attempts to figure out the next step. Is Adina Porter's Dinah Stevens supposed to call to mind Shonda Rhimes? Is Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman's Andre a stand-in for Kenya Barris? Who, then, was Stew supposed to be? And what is his cautionary tale supposed to warn upwardly mobile showrunners about?

For the record, this is probably not what American Horror Story: Apocalypse is about.

It's about Joan Collins chewing scenery, hazmat suits that look like they could double as kinky fetish gear, fantastic wood-etched pre-titles, pustulant ponies, Billie Lourd's withering deadpan and the promise that characters and information from previous years will be tied together if we stick with it long enough. I probably will not.

Cast: Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Evan Peters, Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman, Adina Porter, Emma Roberts, Joan Collins
Showrunners: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)