American Horror Story: NYC Season-Premiere Recap: Scary Island

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How much success can Ryan Murphy have in a single month? In early October, he broke a Netflix record with Dahmer, which became the second most viewed show in the platform’s history. Now, barely two weeks later, he’s done it once more with The Watcher, taking over Dahmer for the exact same claim. It’s absurd that these two shows were released so close together as it is. What’s more, though, is that that’s not even the end of it. With very little fanfare, information, or warning, Murphy has returned again with the 11th season of American Horror Story.

For those of us who have been following the show since the beginning, all of this context makes the new season feel much like an afterthought. The disappointing tenth season, split into two stories, as well as the two-episodes-per-week structure with this 11th season, only bolster that sentiment. Could AHS: NYC be one of the last gasps of the beloved cult series? Perhaps. But the slow burn of the two-episode premiere suggests otherwise.

All we’ve known for the last several weeks is that this season of AHS takes place in New York City in the early ’80s, centering around the gay community and a serial killer. Teasers revealed that we’d see the return of a handful of favorite actors from prior seasons like Zachary Quinto, Denis O’Hare, Billie Lourd, and Leslie Grossman, as well as the legendary Sandra Bernhard and Patti LuPone. This left us on skeptical, but still solid, footing.

With this background in mind, the first episode of AHS: NYC begins exactly as anyone who has seen previous seasons would have guessed: Within the first three minutes, we see shirtless leather daddies and a beheaded dead body. It’s not the first, apparently. One of our protagonists, a semi-closeted cop named Patrick (played by Russell Tovey, an AHS newcomer), knows that this is just one of many that have been happening as of late. None of his co-workers, who don’t know that Patrick is gay, care much that gay men are being murdered. This dynamic — gay men dying, cops doing nothing — is the overarching tension of the show, imbuing a sense of helplessness and injustice. Mirroring these murders, however, is a mysterious illness killing off deer on Fire Island, but also somehow now manifesting in the gay community in NYC. This problem is being studied by Hannah (played by Billie Lourd), who somehow has the responsibility of both overseeing deer populations and treating human patients in a clinical setting.

With all of this, Murphy’s central point seems to be highlighting the precarity of said community in this era. The odd thing is, of course, that he just made this part of his point with Dahmer. Much like AHS: NYC now, Dahmer emphasized that the reason a sloppy serial killer could get away with his abject brutality for so long was police incompetence and carelessness. Because these men were gay, their lives were not on the radar. AHS: NYC feels entirely like a continuation of this theme, both in the murders and in the illness.

As with Dahmer, what’s scariest about this season is that it incorporates historical events. Moreover, the general tone of the season thus far is much like Dahmer: Dahmer had elements of horror, given its topic, but it felt more like a true-crime drama in a way that AHS: NYC now does as well. There are a few rough scenes, like one where Gino (played by Joe Mantello) has hot needles placed beneath his fingernails, but it’s still frankly nothing compared to the knife-dick sexual assaults and nail guns to the head we’ve seen in previous seasons. Even the opening theme, which we don’t see until the second episode, is tamer than we’ve come to expect. Often, these are practically the scariest part of the show. If the theme is an indicator of what’s to come, perhaps this season will lean less heavily on the “Horror” part of its name.

So far, AHS: NYC is primarily a mystery show, and like many others of the genre, has begun at a slow, subdued pace. This is a refreshing, even optimistic turn for the series. The last season began with a powerful premise — one of the best so far — that fell into half-assed chaos within its five episodes. It showed its hand too quickly, and seemed to give up on recovering it. Now, AHS: NYC feels as though it’s committed to giving the plot room to breathe. While we were very quickly introduced to all the characters of the show and the central plot points, we still have little clue what’s really going on, two episodes in. Namely, we don’t know who is committing the murders or why. We don’t even know if our main villain, the giant leather man, is real. On top of this, there’s a second, even creepier killer adding to the death toll, and our detective appears to be lying for reasons that remain entirely unrevealed. The secondary plot, the illness ravaging deer and now humans, is still opaque, too. Is this supposed to be HIV? A fictionalized illness with similar effects? Is the illness somehow connected to the murders? These questions arise with the sense that there will be many other even more pressing questions to come.

For now, we can rely on one thing about this season: It will be sexy. AHS almost always is, but the queer ’80s New York City setting offers far more creative and erotic fodder than, say, the dilapidated North Carolina colonial farmhouse of AHS: Roanoke. The leather, the coke, the soundtrack — even if the plot this season fails us, at least we’ll be fed aesthetically. There are not yet any ghosts, vampires, witches, or demons, but if this season is entirely grounded in reality, it’s at least a gritty and exciting one to see. Though this might not be as big of a hit as Dahmer or The Watcher, AHS fans likely won’t be starved of the campy theatricalism we’ve come to adore.

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• Patti LuPone’s character has served no other purpose than performing as a singer in a gay bathhouse. More could happen, I’m sure, but this role is hilarious, absurd, and fabulous as it is.

• As Adam (played by Charlie Carver) is being harassed by the police for trying to spread awareness about the murders, a large man in a cowboy hat and a jockstrap (and that alone) comes in and slaps him across the face. According to members of the American Horror Story sub-Reddit, this specific scene — and many others from the season — is a reference to the 1980 film Cruising.

• Zachary Quinto’s character, Sam, is practically a perfect combination of his two characters from seasons one and two. These were long enough ago that it actually feels fun to see him take on these personas once more. Currently, both Grossman and Lourd seem to be playing slightly different characters than we usually see with AHS. Grossman is less humorous and bitchy, and though Lourd has her usual flat affect, it feels like a new and appropriate fit for her medical character.