[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the premiere of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” aka “AHS” Season 8.]
Sometimes you’ve got to kick back in your nuclear fallout shelter, eat some human flesh, and savor every second of the world’s complete and utter implosion — you know, like your Nana would. The Season 8 premiere of “American Horror Story” ditched the pretense of importance that weighed down an overly complicated “Cult” and delved into the wicked fun Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s series can find at its peak. There’s still plenty of opportunities for commentary coming, but the haunting setups are punctuated with showy flourishes of humor, making the start of “AHS: Apocalypse” feel just like Ms. Venable wants: a welcome beginning instead of a harrowing end.
The nuclear fallout began with a haircut. It’s fitting, given the camp value of “AHS” at its finest, and most of the opening sequence highlighted the best Ryan Murphy’s anthology series can offer: a haunting vision of an inescapable demise, dotted with choice bits of dark humor. The “billionaire” Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (a well-utilized Leslie Grossman) is sent scurrying from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica (perish the thought), after an alert flashes on everyone’s phones: “Ballistic Missile Threat inbound for Los Angeles.”
With four tickets to a shelter booked in advance by her father (who can’t make it to safety), Coco commits to taking her assistant, Mallory (Billie Lourd) and her hairdresser, Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters). Luckily for literally everyone, what seems like the worst decision ever turns out to be a sneaky brilliant choice by the writers (Murphy and Falchuk), and instead of Coco’s husband, Brock (Billy Eichner), making the trip, Gallant’s Nana Evie (Joan Collins) gets to tag along for the ride. Now, losing Eichner still stings — he’s a perfect fit for this angry, campy world — but the pain is eased by a) his final line: “Coco, do not leave me in fucking Santa Monica!” and b) Collins’ incredible turn.
Throughout the episode, Nana knows exactly when to pop in with an outrageously inappropriate zinger: When she’s told missles are coming to kill us all, she quips “So’s global warming” — a line that’s doubly fun when picturing her as a stuck-up right-winger who doesn’t actually believe in global warming. Later, when the plane overlooking a nuked Los Angeles is found to be without a pilot, she complains about a lack of “fresh cut fruit” from the missing “stewardess.” Even Coco’s best line (and there are many to choose from) is centered on justifying why Nana deserves to be an elite member of the fallout shelter, even though she doesn’t do anything to help: “She’s been to the Oscars and was best friends with Natalie Wood so get some fucking perspective!”
The only character who currently holds a candle to Nana’s glorious slights — and Collins’ hilarious readings — is, of course, Sarah Paulson. As Ms. Venable, Paulson is running the fallout shelter. She’s in charge of designating who’s a Purple (“the elite”) and who’s a Gray (“our worker ants”). Along with her trusty lieutenant, Ms. Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates), Ms. Venable is running her own little torture chamber. She admits to delighting in killing occupants for “the stupid ‘can’t believe this is happening to me’ look they get,” and insists The Cooperative — who’s in charge of not just this shelter, but three other outposts — isn’t paying attention.
Of course, she’s wrong. After killing a guest and forcing the remaining folks there to eat his flesh — “The stu is Stew!” teeters on the edge of going too far, even for “AHS,” but it’s spectacularly dumb enough to love — an actual member of The Cooperative shows up and announces he’s going to decide who among them he’ll take to his impenetrable, well-stocked fortress. Michael Langdon (played by “American Crime Story’s” Cody Fern) takes Ms. Venable down a peg, setting up an arc where she’s on equal playing field as those she’s been torturing. Let the games begin.
“American Horror Story: Apocalypse” exists very much in the franchise’s comfort zone. There’s a candlelit house of horrors with two ladies running the show. The occupants are mix of backstabbing narcissists and naive kiddos (shout-out to “The Path’s” Kyle Allen, as Timothy, who deserved a big break after that performance). There are rules to this brand new world begging to be broken — no going outside, and no sex — while the core cast is about to be flooded with even more guests. (Don’t forget: For an hour spent on setting up its original premise, “Apocalypse” is still a crossover of “Murder House” and “Coven.”)
But even if the formula is familiar, “AHS” is having one helluva time playing with it. Actors like Grossman and Williams are hamming it up with style, the fast-paced storytelling makes the most of its time jumps, and the sets are simply gorgeous — the shelter looks like it was designed by Richard Serra, for Pete’s sake.
“AHS” has started well in the past before spiraling off the rails, but “Apocalypse” delivers simple pleasures and is promising more to come. With cameos and extended stays from past characters, there’s reason to believe “Apocalypse” can sustain its delicious flavor through 11 episodes. And just like Nana said, “I’m going to finish every drop.”
“American Horror Story: Apocalypse” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.