American Horror Story: NYC Feels Like Nothing AHS Has Ever Attempted
New Wave music, seedy bars, serial killers, epidemiology, and 1981 New York City take center stage in the latest season of American Horror Story.
This American Horror Story: NYC review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 11 Episodes 1 and 2
Season 11 of American Horror Story is going to be the most polarizing collection of episodes to spring forth from the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk creative collective. Given the sheer scope of the show, that’s saying something. However, the first two episodes of AHS NYC, “Something’s Coming” and “Thank You For Your Service” almost feel like Ryan Murphy attempting to marry the more prestige TV elements of something like Murphy’s Netflix smash-hit Dahmer and American Crime Story with the very specific subculture exploration of Pose and the general ambiance of a sleazier, grimier Cruising.
There’s still some of the specific American Horror Story wit in the dialog, but the bulk of the violence is handled off-screen in what is almost a tasteful manner. Very little else leading up to the kills could be considered tasteful, but unlike previous seasons of AHS, when a character gets stabbed in the neck in “Thank You For Your Service,” there’s no Grand Guignol blood spray, or even a shot of a person slowly dying in a pool of their own blood. There’s a stabbing, then a cut-away to characters at the bar while screaming happens in the background and people mill around in a panicked fashion. It’s strange to see this show not milking every little moment of horror, but if the first two episodes are anything to judge the series by, it’s going to build slowly but get increasingly crazy as things go on.
The emphasis should be on slow. “Something’s Coming” starts off slowly, throwing a whole lot of characters at the screen at once in separated story lines, but taking longer to get started for it. The setting, 1981 New York City, ticks a lot of positive boxes for me, from the general look of things to the incredible soundtrack, even if it’s a world far different from 2022. Aside from the leather-clad airplane crew member found beheaded by the pier, most of the debut episode is focused on building up the character of Gino (Joe Mantello) and his partner Patrick (Russell Tovey). Gino is an openly-gay newspaper reporter for The Native, a small publication centered on the Village, and Patrick is a closeted member of the NYPD who faces significant pressure from his boss, Mac (Kal Penn) not to dig too deeply into a story both men are chasing.
There’s a serial killer stalking New York City’s gay community, violence is on the rise, and the NYPD and government officials couldn’t care less about what happens to a bunch of gay men. Patrick sniffs out the connection and pushes for official action, but can’t push too hard lest his cover be blown. Gino is free to push as hard as he wants, but without the protection of a badge, he’s as likely to get accosted by the cops as he is attacked by Fran (Sandra Bernhard) and her coterie of lesbians seeking equal representation in the pages of The Native.
When Adam (Charlie Carver, also a producer and co-writer on “Thank You For Your Service”) discovers his roommate is missing and presumed a victim of a leather-strap-clad behemoth known as Big Daddy, he tries to go to the cops for help, and finds Patrick a sympathetic mustache but unable to do much to help him. So he turns to Gino, and really starts getting attention on the plight. He’s been investigating on his own, and he’s getting in deep with Isaac Powell’s artist Theo Graves and Zachary Quinto’s slimy business manager with a dark side Sam.
Of the new faces, Joe Mantello has the most screen time in the first two episodes, and Gino is an important character for the audience to root for since most of the events of the show have revolved around him to some degree. Charlie Carver plays Adam as a remarkably straight-laced type of character in a world that caters to every decadent whim. He’s not interested in indulging those tastes; he seems like he might be a little more old-fashioned in comparison to the hedonistic Theo and Sam.
Mantello does brilliant work, particularly when taking Adam under his wing in their pursuit of attention to the Big Daddy killings. Russell Tovey’s conflicted Patrick doesn’t work quite as well; he’s with Gino, but their relationship is more strained than anything else, until the two of them start to actually go about doing detective work. Denis O’Hare drops in as a delightful Andy Warhol-type in a few exposition-heavy scenes, and fellow AHS veteran Zachary Quinto should be a Hollywood go-to for a sadistic scummy guy with weird sexual proclivities, considering Sam moves from coked-up creep to opportunist pretty quickly in under two hours of screen time.
Of the two episodes, John J. Gray’s debut episode affords the director less opportunity to show off from a stylistic standpoint, with Max Winkler’s second episode getting to get a little more showy with scenes of Gino, stumbling drugged out of a pink neon nightmare of a peep show and into the street where some hallucinatory ladies of the evening rescue him from his drugged haze. Winkler also gets to shoot a particularly strange warehouse party involving cats and a faux Klaus Nomi performance artist/singer, as well as a few well-done scenes in an especially concerning leather bar run by Rebecca Dayan’s Alana.
Twisted in among the hunt for the serial killer is a mysterious new series of ailments popping up in New York City’s gay community, which lowers the body’s immune response, causing a startling up-tick in unusual diseases and parasites. That, of course, is more than likely AIDS, a real-life disease that’s killed millions of people around the world and remains one of the globe’s greatest health concerns. But, since this is American Horror Story, it could also be tied back to a mysterious disease that’s spreading like wildfire among the deer population of Fire Island being investigated by Billie Lourd’s scientist, Hannah. A disease that certain people believe has an origin within the United States government.
Now that sort of wild conspiracy theory feels more like the AHS I’m used to. People on the hunt for a serial killer is all well and good, and can be very fun, but it wouldn’t be Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk without something crazier than shirtless hunks in cages to really liven things up. NYC might be more David Fincher’s Zodiac than a take on William Lustig’s Maniac for the moment, but there’s always that undercurrent of weirdness to everything American Horror Story does that’s just waiting to move from a subplot to the main feature.