There’s so much to love about the 1980s, the era that brought us Prince, power suits, Die Hard and the "Top That" rap from Teen Witch. Its techno-colored excess, expressed through hair size and guitar solos, has always been ripe for nostalgia. Stranger Things, The Goldbergs, and even the recent Thor sequel have traded in affection for the era, and over the past decade, pop culture has gleefully revisited double denim and John Carpenter-style practical effects. But, as American Horror Story: NYC shows us, we've candy-coated a poisoned apple.
The latest season of American Horror Story takes place in 1981, the year after Ronald Reagan was elected. The U.S. recession had come to an end, and on Wall Street, greed was definitely good. But just a few miles downtown, the victims of the 1980s were piling up — and AHS: NYC flips the perspective to those that the era abused.
This is far from the first time Ryan Murphy's tackled the '80s. 2019 saw AHS: 1984, all legwarmers, aerobics, and giant perms in a colorful summer camp (albeit one with a killer on the loose). He recently debuted his Jeffrey Dahmer limited series on Netflix, and from 2018 to 2021, Murphy was part of the team behind Pose, which depicted the formative years of ballroom culture. That FX series acknowledged some of the strife and misery while still wrapping it up with such stylish panache to provide a little fun escapism.
But the year is now 2022, and appropriately, Murphy's latest offers no such reprieve, taking an unrelentingly bleak look at the struggles of simply trying to exist in 1981. The show sees grizzled and closeted detective Patrick (Russell Tovey) operating in a bigoted police force on the tail of a sadistic killer. When another body turns up with the killer's signature, the fact that the victim was a gay man means the press, the police force, and even the coroner react with breezy indifference.
As Patrick observes, "If this was the body of a pretty blond girl from Riverdale, they’d have 10 detectives on the case." Even after a fifth victim is found, the police chief (Kal Penn) remains dismissive, saying "Five people isn't a pattern, that's a night in the Bronx." Despite having a POC boss, this gay detective is acutely aware of just whose lives the police are there to serve and protect. Gay men in the show continually dismiss the needs of lesbians as being out of step with their agenda, because this is a world in which suffering dignifies no one — and even without a serial killer or a disease to worry about, the threat is constant. As Patrick’s boyfriend grimly spells out to him, "The police hate us and the city hates us."
Meanwhile, scientist Hannah (Billie Lourde) is hard at work on Fire Island, where a new disease is tearing through the deer population. The only hope is to cull every deer on the island lest it spread to humans. But as this is the '80s, the government’s interest in the disease depends on whether it affects those it considers to be truly "human." As the faceless serial killer whispers as he cuts into one of his victims, "They think we bleed differently, but we’re all the same and they will see the blood. There is a war that is coming."
Like many of the great villains of television and cinema, the man with the knife is making a solid point. Around the corner is substance abuse and mental health epidemics, mass incarceration, AIDS (which might already be manifesting in the series) — all in a swirling vortex of conspiracy theories and moral panics. On AHS: NYC, the characters face losing their friends and family while being lied to by the government, as well as mass misinformation, corruption, and a healthcare system that will fail them. This will all occur under the umbrella of the threat of nuclear war with the U.S.S.R.
But perhaps what's even worse is how familiar so much of this story remains in 2022 — the 1980s, like a villain at the end of a horror film, have sprung back up for another round. Thanks to the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation and the war in Ukraine, we’ve now even got the full set of '80s nightmares to contend with in 2022. Some of the details may have changed — trans kids now bear the brunt of the country’s ire, not gay men; police budgets have grown and the legal recourse for victims of police brutality have shrunk; pharmaceutical breathroughs have revolutionized the treatment of AIDS but that same industry has created the opiod crisis. But dehumanizing the most vulnerable members of society is back with a vengeance. Even the styling in AHS: NYC has a contemporary feel; were it not for a journalist and a detective being able to afford a spacious Manhattan apartment, the show could convincingly be set in the present day.
What the premiere of AHS: NYC speaks to is also a feeling in the air, an inescapable pandemic of bad vibes. A sense of surviving a near-apocalypse and yet still being on the brink of a more definitive one. American Horror Story isn’t normally a show that would be associated with existential clarity, but with its first two episodes, the new season has already called for a past and present reassessment. Progress is not linear, there are many people that can still convincingly claim that "the police hate us and the city hates us." And in the current era, when we are unable to stop repeating the mistakes of the past, AHS: NYC asks that at the very least we stop glorifying them.
New episodes of American Horror Story: NYC air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET on FX, and stream the next day on Hulu.
Leila Latif is Contributing Editor to Total Film, the host of Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast and a regular at Sight and Sound, Indiewire, The Guardian, The BBC and others. Follow her on twitter @Leila_Latif.