FX’s American Horror Story has always been a franchise run at least in part on nostalgia, albeit nostalgia sent through a radioactive swamp, pulled through a mess of barbed wire and refracted through a broken mirror until it became something bloody, twisted and new. The primary joy of each season — a joy that, if I’m being honest, has typically lasted between one and five episodes per installment — has been seeing what Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and company would do with something as familiar as a haunted house or witches or the 2016 election.
If last season — Apocalypse, if you have already lost track of where we are in the series’ nine-season run — was the first time I felt like campiness and silliness overrode the core mandate to be freaky and creepy, Wednesday night’s American Horror Story: 1984 premiere was the first time it seemed like Murphy and Falchuk were engaging in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. The launch was an hour-ish of the writers and frequent director Bradley Buecker saying, “You like GLOW? You like Stranger Things? You like the ’80s? Remember those summer camp killer movies? Reference! Reference! Reference!”
Other than an awkwardly introduced intersection with reality that finds the series using Richard Ramirez (Zach Villa), the real-life Night Stalker, as a counterpoint to the season’s fictional slasher (John Carroll Lynch’s initially perfunctory Mr. Jingles), the premiere lacked any sort of warped or specific twist. That said, I’m guessing the show’s devoted cult — Cult was the seventh season, if you’ve lost track — will be too pleased with the pandering and the return of a beloved ensemble to care.
Forgive me for having expected more from this potentially fertile intersection of camp and campiness.
The season’s plot is intentionally thin. We begin in 1970 as camp counselors in the early stage of a threesome end up penetrated instead by the business end of a knife, part of the sort of massacre that tends to diminish enrollment.
Cut to 1984 and Los Angeles is in the midst of a trio of summer fevers: excitement about the looming Olympics, terror about the reign of the Night Stalker and healthfulness with the rise of aerobics. It’s the last of those that brings together our heroes: Method-trained actor Xavier (Cody Fern), disgraced athlete Chet (Gus Kenworthy, born to play guys named “Chet”), workout obsessive Montana (Billie Lourd), instantly superfluous Ray (DeRon Horton) and earnest new-girl-in-town Brooke (Emma Roberts). Xavier is escaping the urban heat by taking a job as counselor at the newly reopened Camp Redwood and convinces his aerobics buddies to join him. Brooke is the last straggler, but she reconsiders when she fends off a Night Stalker attack of her own.
Now keep in mind that this is 1984, so nobody has Google and we go through the usual genre-specific warning signs about Camp Redwood. Crazy guy at a rundown gas station telling the fledgling counselor that reopening Redwood was a bad idea? Check! And played by Don Swayze! Crazy hitchhiker offering non-specific causes for concern? Check! And played by Lou Taylor Pucci! Older-and-wiser camp administrators who tell stories of Camp Redwood’s bloody past? Check and check! And played by Leslie Grossman and Angelica Ross! Dude with an ’80s pornstache and a gigantic penis? Well, that’s not the same sort of warning, but maybe when he’s played by Matthew Morrison, it ought to be.
Morrison is having a hoot, or as much of a hoot as you can have when your character is defined by the enormous prosthetic encased in his golden track shorts, which apparently is a thing we can show on FX now. That’s a big part of why American Horror Story is always amusing to check out. No, not the artificial dongs, but the entertainment Murphy and Falchuk find in putting this ensemble of mostly returning favorites through a new set of paces each year.
This version’s big casting twist, such as it is, finds Roberts cast as the bland good girl, basically reinstating the way casting directors looked at her in her Nancy Drew and Hotel for Dogs days — before Murphy and company accurately assessed that Roberts true gifts lie in playing an acid-tongued bad girl. This is how letting Emma Roberts be boring can become revolutionary, I suppose?
Once again, Lourd is the humorous standout, setting aside her precious deadpan for a crazy-eyed enthusiasm for workout routines and a generalized pansexual horniness. Won’t somebody please give her a front-and-center star vehicle already?
Fern is very much at home as this kind of hair-bleached ’80s fop, though I’m not at all sure he’s playing the sort of allegedly serious actor the part describes. Kenworthy looks like he’s in very good shape. Grossman is solid with a couple irony-drenched lines espousing moral rectitude to the randy counselors. And it’s a pleasant surprise to see Ross getting to exhibit real versatility here after her very different breakout turn on Pose.
Buecker is also getting a kick out of playing around with a low-budget aesthetic meant to evoke battered VHS cassettes or the reception on a bulky, rabbit-eared television. It’s a lot of exaggerated fake blood, jittery tracking shots and Mac Quayle’s proficiently synth-y homage to the scores of John Carpenter. The soundtrack is almost all on-the-nose ’80s hit needle-drops, but the audience that loves American Horror Story probably doesn’t want tracks any deeper than Frank Stallone’s eternally corny “Far From Over” or Rockwell’s thematically obvious “Somebody’s Watching Me.”
That relative complacency carries over from the script’s low-hanging-fruit references to genre progenitors like Friday the 13th, A Bay of Blood and Halloween. There are hints of cleverness in the dialogue, but just hints. It’s only in the Night Stalker stuff, perhaps fodder for a Quentin Tarantino-esque rewrite of history, that I got much hope for anything fresh. The idea that the season might use the pretty young counselors as a Trojan horse for some sort of Mr.-Jingles-versus-The-Night-Stalker mashup might be the only thing keeping me interested for future American Horror Story: 1984 episodes. And even that might not be enough.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Cody Fern, Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman, Gus Kentworthy, Matthew Morrison, Angelica Ross, Zach Villa, DeRon Horton, John Carroll Lynch
Showrunners: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)