Like FX’s American horror story enters its twelfth season, three things distinguish its newest baby, Delicate, from his big brothers and sisters. One of them is the fact that this is the first story based on a novel: Danielle Valentine’s Sensitive conditiona Rosemary’s child riff about an actress, Anna (Emma Roberts), trying to get pregnant through IVF. Another is that this is the first season where co-creator Ryan Murphy is not a showrunner; instead of, AHS newcomer Halley Feiffer (American Crime Story: Impeachment) fulfills that role.
In combination, they indicate a potential for American horror story to take a cleaner and clearer direction, away from the long-standing reputation for sloppy plotting – but it’s not at far from its knack for building buzz, as the third standout element is the headline-worthy stunt casting of Kim Kardashian as Anna’s BFF and publicist Siobhan. But whether it is able to deliver on all those promises remains an open question at the end of an excellent debut.
American horror story: delicate
It comes down to
A little too delicate for its own good.
Broadcast date: 10:00 PM Wednesday, September 20 (FX)
Form: Emma Roberts, Matt Czuchry, Kim Kardashian, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Denis O’Hare, Cara Delevingne, Julie White, Maaz Ali
Makers: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Developed by: Halley Feiffer, based on the book by Danielle Valentine
Honestly, it’s impossible to judge an entire season based on one episode. But when the best premieres sink their claws into a viewer, Delicate can only pick up a light scratch – sharp enough to leave an impression, but not to captivate anyone. The media opening is creepy in every way: Anna feels a hand on her sleeping body and turns to see not her partner, Dexter (Matt Czuchry), but a cloaked figure fleeing into the night, leaving Anna’s own hands are inexplicably left bloodied. Still, the hour as a whole feels disappointingly subdued. It lacks the lush strangeness that gave Amazon a similar fertility theme Dead Ringers so impossible to shake, or the creepy world-building it achieved Yellow jackets such an instantaneous blow – or for that matter, the madness that anything can happen American horror story trending for over a decade.
There’s still time for it Delicate to get there anyway. In the meantime, it has other attractions, including, first and foremost, a talent for striking images. The actresses don’t so much wear costumes as serve looks like, from Anna’s ‘off-duty A-lister’ hat and sunglasses combo to Siobhan’s corset-inspired blazer and oxblood leather trench coat. A studded stiletto is not merely an accessory, but a plot point; so does a shiny gold tube of bright red lipstick. Meanwhile, the sets look soft and chilly at the same time. Nurses in maroon uniforms glide silently over stark gray-white walls. A terrified woman sprints down an all-white hallway that wouldn’t look out of place on a Kardashian home tour.
Speaking of which, only time can tell how Kardashian fares when she gets more intense material, as much of Siobhan’s screen time so far has been spent dumping exposition. But for now, her dry affect proves paradoxically perfect for delivering campy lines like “Tell the Daniels to suck my clit,” as she does in her very first scene. Indeed, she makes a stronger impression than Roberts, who despite literally starring in Murphy’s Scream queen doesn’t prove much of this. She captures Anna’s nagging unease well, but she’s unconvincing when asked to convey outright fear.
Anna spends most of her time in the previous mode anyway. As she begins her third round of IVF, she is plagued by the feeling that she is being watched for some sinister reason. A strange woman lurks outside her building, studying a dead bird embryo in a broken nest. Another confronts her at the fertility clinic and takes her photo before she is dragged away. It looks like someone keeps messing with her appointment calendar and moving things around her house. Dexter attributes her worries to stress: “It’s okay, honey. You’re taking a lot of medication and you have a lot on your mind,” he reassures her with condescending goodwill. But she knows something is wrong, even though no one else seems to know.
That embodies tension DelicateThe central theme of the film is the pain of existing in a body that is supposed to be for everyone. “I feel like I’m doing violence to myself,” she protests as she hands over a doll of herself to sign. “That’s called being an actress,” Siobhan responds with a straight face. At the clinic, her pain complaints are dismissed with the reasoning that ‘nothing worth waiting for is ever easy’. The fact that Anna chose to become an actress and undergo IVF only makes her experience even more fraught. These are decisions that now threaten to rob her of the agency she used to make them.
So far, the series seems better at projecting the superficial beauty of Anna’s world than the ugliness that lies just beneath it. But Anna is also a cover girl and is about to discover how nasty life can be. Delicate would do well to follow her into the mud, and let herself get a little messy.