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‘American Horror Story’ and the Wave of Trump Television

Scripted shows are finally catching up to the election of 2016—and exploring its consequences in unexpected ways

FX/HBO/ABC/Hulu/Ringer illustration

It was easy to be suspicious when the congenitally unsubtle Ryan Murphy announced his intentions to tackle the 2016 election in the seventh chapter of his American Horror Story anthology. It was even easier when Evan Peters’s cult leader, Kai, smeared his face with literal Cheeto paste in the very first scene. A camp impresario allergic to the concept of restraint, Murphy’s misses far outnumber the hits: for every (relatively) restrained The People v. O.J. Simpson or Feud, there’s a Glee domestic abuse plotline or Kathy Bates’s disembodied head watching Roots, or that bizarre episode of Nip/Tuck where Joan Rivers stopped by to make a point about plastic surgery and aging. Ryan Murphy will always be himself, but was it too much to ask that he wait to do so until our national wounds were slightly less raw?

But three episodes into the new season, American Horror Story: Cult appears to be holding its own. While election night and its fallout provide Cult’s overall structure, the season is less about Trump’s-victory-as-horror-premise and more about Trump’s America as a time of roiling chaos and uncertainty; these circumstances provide opportunity for a Machiavellian personality like Kai, a cult leader who assembles a coterie of misfits to manipulate for his own gain, though his precise endgame remains unclear. (Whatever it is, it involves a pinky-cross-based ritual and terrifying minions in clown masks.) That’s why he’s celebrating. Kai isn’t a Trump true believer; he’s a kindred spirit in naked, intuitive opportunism.

Cult picks its political targets perfectly. Besides Kai, Cult’s other main character is Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), an affluent, phobic lesbian living in suburban Michigan who voted for Jill Stein because she was sure Hillary was a lock. Ally is living proof that the hoary cliché “write what you know” is never more true than when it comes to satire; as someone in Murphy’s political, socioeconomic, and even geographic milieu — the creator hails from the Midwest, part of why he chose Cult’s swing-state setting — Ally bears the brunt of Cult’s harshest cracks. American Horror Story has always been as much comedy as frightfest, and Murphy seems fully aware that November 8 was a joke at the expense of the Allys of the world — a group that includes both Murphy himself and much of his audience.

At a Q&A with FX president John Landgraf after a screening earlier this month, Murphy said that he’s wanted to use American Horror Story to tell a Manson-style cult story for years now, and that 2016 simply provided the ideal backdrop for one. The season, it turns out, isn’t truly about the election, at least in the literal What Happened sense; it’s about the horror the election enables. In that way, Cult feels like the natural endpoint of a process that’s been unfolding for almost a year, as a necessarily slow-moving medium like scripted television begins to adjust to a seismic event like the election of 2016. The fast-expanding genre of Trump-adjacent TV encompasses a wide variety of series, from one-off special episodes to de facto art films to throwaway jokes. Unscripted TV, whether comedy or newscasts, has spent months responding to the current administration in the most literal sense, as is their job. Now, a more gradual platform like scripted TV can deal with President Donald Trump in more oblique, unorthodox ways. Not every example addresses Trump from the same perspective, or with the same level of success. But together, the shows provide a slow-motion insight into how art and artists are internalizing our present moment, and also how far its consequences reach. Over time, “political TV” has become synonymous with besuited monologues and one-off conversation pieces — but the growing and increasingly diverse class of Trump TV goes to show just how limited that stereotype is.

The first subcategory of Trump TV, and the most discomfiting, are of the accidental variety — shows that preceded the climax of 2016 but managed to reflect its impact regardless. It’s all but impossible to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale, or its recent raft of Emmy wins, without mentioning its acute and accidental relevance. The show — planned, written, and even produced before the election — had its issues with pacing, race, and turning Margaret Atwood’s snapshot of a dystopia into a multivolume narrative. Regardless, they were successfully overpowered by a momentum that’s impossible to imagine outside the real-world context it emerged into.

A slightly less explicit connection, and a far less well-received one, could be found in HBO’s Vice Principals, which returned on Sunday for its second half. (Creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill had initially planned their Eastbound & Down follow-up as a feature before expanding it to nine finite hours, though they didn’t announce as such until after the first season ended with a cliffhanger.) Hill and McBride have been chroniclers of North Carolina, where the two met in film school, dating back to their debut feature, The Foot Fist Way; similarly, McBride’s specialty as both a writer and a performer has always been channeling a kind of aggrieved, entitled, and ignorant white masculinity.

Vice Principals moved the action one state south, but the players stayed the same. McBride’s brutish Neal Gamby and Walton Goggins’s mincing Lee Russell are high school vice principals; once archrivals, they found a common enemy in Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the hypercompetent, sensitive, qualified black woman (i.e., their opposite) the two successfully deposed by the end of Season 1, though not before they’d burned down her house. For many, the sight of two protagonists, if not heroes, perpetrating multiple acts of violence to take back what they saw as rightfully theirs proved too much. Some critics, like Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, argued that Vice Principals “does more to explain Trump’s rise than any show on TV.” Many more thought the show channeled its characters’ resentment a little too effectively to work as comedy.

Since last year’s finale, though, a Trump presidency has become reality, and the eponymous vice principals have gotten exactly what they wished for. The real-world parallels have compounded and grown in this latest chapter; the show, which was filmed entirely in one block before the first season was released, appears to respond to events it predates by more than a year. Season 1 saw Neal and Lee do terrible things to get what they thought they deserved; having gotten it, Season 2 shows them paranoid, isolated, and monumentally unsuited to the task at hand. (“The second season is about them getting what they asked for and how that plays out for both of them,” McBride told Vulture. “We said it’s like Crime and Punishment. The first season is the crime and the second season is the punishment.”) As with most cult comedies, Vice Principals will continue to be celebrated by its dedicated fan base and largely ignored by a busy critical establishment that’s largely moved on. But quietly, Vice Principals is doing for Trump’s tenure what its first season did for his ascendancy: shrewdly exposing toxic men by letting their ids run wild for all to see.

The second wave of Trump TV chooses to incorporate Trump; still, like American Horror Story and Vice Principals, the vast majority of Trump TV isn’t really about Trump at all. It’s simply regular television that feels obligated to incorporate our current reality, up to and including our president, in some way. There are far too many examples of this kind of TV to reduce to just a handful of illustrative highlights, but as someone who professionally consumes a massive quantity of television, watching this amorphous subgenre take shape has been one of the more fascinating trends of the last several months. Black-ish dropped everything to get its Norman Lear–style family discussion in before Inauguration Day. (So did The Carmichael Show, though during the campaign.) Difficult People, which shares a costar with Cult in Billy Eichner, had a characteristically wacky B-plot about a federally administered conversion program called Sixpence None the Gayer. And on Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, the leads toyed with moving to New Zealand to escape the everyday bigotry the show suddenly made a point of showing. Each of these examples felt native to the show at hand, filtering Trump through a previously established house style. Difficult People never strayed from its reference-heavy cynicism, and a cancer comedy like One Mississippi is no stranger to dramedy, nor Black-ish to topic-of-the-week roundtables. The shift was in substance, not style.

The list goes on: Broad City weaving ironic references to a female president into its flashbacks; BoJack Horseman doing an election subplot in which celebrity trumps substance — and Jessica Biel starts a cannibalistic fire cult. (By creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s own admission, Trump is an obvious influence on jokes at the expense of a gullible electorate or a broken cable news apparatus.) These are often passing moments, not extended meditations, which paradoxically only adds to their power: It’s politics as atmospheric ambience, seeping into our entertainment almost unnoticed until we do a double take during our favorite weekly sitcom. It’s Trump as an everyday fact of life, which is exactly what the real Trump threatens to become, and already has for many, as the months grind on and the news cycles blur into one another. Even when TV isn’t directly attempting to make sense of our circumstances, it can simply reflect them.

Throughout the past year and a half, more nimble and timely formats like late-night television have digested the news almost as soon as it’s hit our browsers. For the past couple of nights, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has been engaged in a riveting public battle with Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, the cosponsor of the current Republican attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. Cassidy had gone on Kimmel’s show several months ago to promise that he wouldn’t vote for legislation that does several of the things his own bill would enshrine into law, like roll back protections for preexisting conditions. Kimmel himself has earned the ire of both conservative media and elected officials, and his audience has gotten the galvanizing shock of a largely politics-light public figure visibly incensed and openly calling on his viewers to call their representatives. The spat has even gathered the escape velocity to transcend the late-night bubble entirely and become a national news story.

The back-and-forth is a particularly high-profile instance of what’s largely defined Trump TV in the public consciousness: responsive, matter-of-fact, and coming from the mouths of real, if famous, people, not fictional characters. But along with its many peers and predecessors, American Horror Story: Cult — and Vice Principals, and Broad City, and all the rest —demonstrates that political TV can be something else. “Deliberate” is not a term most would associate with Ryan Murphy, nor “slyly political” with Danny McBride. In 2017, though, everything is relative.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.