In the first ten minutes of American Horror Story: NYC (★★★☆☆), a doctor uncovers the first signs of AIDS, a closeted leather daddy is decapitated, and Sandra Bernhard threatens someone with a knife.
If this were any other TV series, it might leave most viewers puzzled, but in the 11th season of Ryan Murphy’s crown jewel, it’s par for the course. Yet, even with its rapid-fire beginning, the most surprising aspect of this horror show is how tame it feels.
Set in 1981, AHS: NYC follows Russell Tovey as Patrick, a closeted gay detective who begins realizing a series of gruesome murders may be a serial killer hunting gay men. Patrick’s partner Gino (Joe Mantello) is upset when Patrick won’t go on the record about the murders, and decides to use his own power as the editor of a gay publication to try and get the public to care
Charlie Carver rounds out the central triptych as a young gay man named Adam whose friend gets abducted by the killer.
As the central mystery ramps up, red flags rise, and the first two episodes generate a slow-burn mystery rather than diving headlong into unsettling horror. (Upcoming episodes of AHS: NYC were not made available to critics for review.)
There are a few terrifying moments, but most are left implied off-screen, which ends up ruining any tension. AHS wastes no time in getting to the homophobia of the ’80s, with the show making it more than clear that gay people had a hard time with discrimination.
This being AHS, there is plenty of camp, like the serial killer turning out to be someone in BDSM leather named “big daddy,” but there isn’t enough actual horror in this horror story outside of the depressing realities of being an LGBTQ person in the ’80s. The show’s second episode remedies a lot of the first’s exposition by depicting horrific moments, even if its story remains uneven.
The B-sides to this season, including Billie Lourd the a doctor who discovers AIDS, and Bernhard as an angry lesbian activist, are too weak to really get a feel for where they are headed.
Hints of supernatural elements and government conspiracy are not unknown territory for the anthology, but the hints don’t go far enough, leaving some confusion that ends up being distracting. The weaknesses in the script are glaringly present in these moments, with dialogue coming off as clunky and forced.
Still, Tovey and Mantello do a spectacular job leading the show, holding up the weight of its flaws. While their dialogue occasionally comes off as preachy, the duo soar in their scenes together.
Issac Powell as an erotic photographer and Zachary Quinto as his rich, sadistic benefactor are another exceptional pairing, with Quinto particularly scary in his scenes, providing the show some of the visceral horror it needs. Moments of camp insanity, such as Patti LuPone crooning love songs to disinterested gays cruising in a bathhouse, are fun, but often come at the expense of any tension the show accrues.
If AHS has taught its viewers anything, it’s to expect the unexpected, as this show has proven in the past that it doesn’t need a coherent reason to jump the shark and introduce bonker narrative pathways. It’s likely only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose in the latest installment — as a series, AHS is not known for restraint.
For fans of the franchise, or simply those looking for some amazing gay eye candy, AHS: NYC has more than enough to get you to tune in weekly. Whether the season will pan out into an amazing gay crime story or a horror story with an AIDS and discriminatory metaphor, AHS: NYC has at least laid out all the threads to weave together something terrific. What that something is, however, remains to be seen.
New episodes of AHS: NYC air weekly every Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET, on FX and on FX on Hulu. Visit www.fxnetworks.com.
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