“It’s a horror piece, so it’s a genre piece, but it’s trying somehow to locate and diagnose the essential craziness of the times in which we live,” John Landgraf, the chief executive of FX, said in a phone interview.
“American Horror Story: Cult” begins its story on election night, switching back and forth between two very different evenings: A married gay couple (Sarah Paulson, Alison Pill), watching in agony with some friends, and a bitter 30-year-old man named Kai (Evan Peters), ecstatically celebrating at home alone.
Mr. Trump and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, are not characters in the series, but they are invoked throughout. The show’s creators say that the election and its aftermath mostly serve to create a tense, unhinged mood in the town. Ms. Paulson’s character, Ally, crippled by various phobias, rails about how the election made everything worse. Kai, meanwhile, buoyed by Mr. Trump’s win, begins proselytizing about the power of fear and anger, and runs for local office.
Oh, right: People also don clown masks and go on a murdering spree.
“It’s not about Trump, it’s not about Clinton, it’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see what’s happening and using that to rise up and form power,” Ryan Murphy, the series’ co-creator, said at a news media event last month. “And using people’s vulnerabilities about how they’re afraid, and feeling vulnerable, and they don’t know where to turn, and they feel like the world is on fire.”
It doesn’t take much to infer that this season is a commentary on Mr. Trump’s political rise, which raises the question: How much of a risk is it for a cable TV show to grab hold of third-rail political fare?
“American Horror Story” averaged nearly six million viewers last season, according to Nielsen, and no doubt some of those viewers are Trump voters. The season’s title, “Cult,” has the whiff of political judgment. And Lena Dunham — whose anti-Trump rhetoric has made her something of an avatar of the left to some of the president’s supporters — has been cast this season (what her role will be is still a mystery).
But Mr. Landgraf and Mr. Murphy insist that the season and its themes aren’t as black-and-white as it may appear.
Mr. Murphy said that he was aware of “people in the Rust Belt who have loved the show, tweet, like, ‘I’m out. I can’t believe that you’re tackling this.’ They don’t understand that every side on our show gets it just as much.”
The people Kai is looking to draw support from, for instance, are not all Trump supporters. And in the first four episodes of the season, there are plenty of sendups of the modern liberal worldview.
There’s talk of trigger warnings, and an overheated argument about a vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, last year. In one scene, when Ally’s son gets a pet guinea pig, she expresses concern because of what she describes as a sensitivity to dander. When she finds out her son has picked a gender-conforming moniker for the animal — “Mr. Guinea” — she scolds him for using a “cisnormative pet name.”
“American Horror Story” benefits from the fact that it is an anthology series with a limited run, so tackling the Trump era is not a difficult feat. But it does perhaps signal how much of a role political matters will play in entertainment programming in the months going forward, especially with continuing dramas or comedies.
The makers of several shows have said this year that political issues — ranging from immigration to abortion rights — would be addressed more aggressively.
“Homeland,” the Showtime drama that is inspired by contemporary issues each season, will not shy away from just how drastically American political life has been rocked in the last year, said Howard Gordon, a co-creator of the show.
In a telephone interview, he said that the next season will deal in part with American institutions — the presidency, Congress, the press — and examine how “vulnerable they are, how easily degraded they are.”
“Things we thought were unshakable and unbreakable are far from,” he said.
Some networks, however, like ABC, have said they are going to go in another direction: escapist fare, or shows that are brighter and lighter (consider that network is rebooting its old middle-class sitcom “Roseanne”).
And it’s still an open question just how much Mr. Trump will be invoked in scripted series at all.
“The biggest downside is the saturation of coverage Trump already gets — who wants even more in entertainment? — and the difficulty of topping the outrageousness of reality,” Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for media and society at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email.
But “American Horror Story” has gone full steam ahead. Mr. Murphy decided to locate the show in Michigan because it had been an election battleground state decided by only a few thousand votes. And he said he wanted to bring a grittier reality to this season, losing some of the operatic feel the series has possessed in the past.
“Usually our color palette is really in your face, and we decided not to do that this year,” Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Landgraf said he believes “American Horror Story” will strike a chord with people on both sides of the political spectrum who are feeling emotionally on edge.
“It is trying to poke fun and make jokes at the expense of — but also examine and portray — how truly irrational people are when they stop listening to each other and when they began acting out of fear instead of any rational thought or debate,” he said.
In other words: what he and Mr. Murphy think might be the scariest season yet.
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