American Horror Story: Delicate Is Anything But

Somehow, Kim Kardashian makes Season 12 worth watching.

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American Horror Story: Delicate Is Anything But

A fanatical cult leader runs for office and cakes his face with Cheeto dust. A serial killer (and mysterious virus) wreaks havoc on the New York gay community in 1981. A Sarah Paulson-like character played by Sarah Paulson screams and cries, repeatedly. Subtlety has never been a word in American Horror Story’s lexicon; neither, arguably, has horror.

It follows suit that the 12th installment of the franchise that refuses to die is thin on both nuance and scares, even while it lays its central themes of patriarchal terror and corporeal autonomy on about as thick as Kim Kardashian’s mascara (more on that later). When American Horror Story works, it soars. But when it can’t manage to weave a delicately spun web of thrills, macabre humor, and social critique, it lands dead on arrival.

As with all seasons, this one kicks off with a brand-new premise and set of characters. Emma Roberts snatches the lead role this time around as Anna Victoria Alcott, a former child star who’s just landed the lead role in an indie horror flick that’s garnering her early Oscar buzz. While navigating this new level of cultural relevance, she’s also navigating the process of conceiving via in vitro fertilization. She’s gone through the invasive procedure twice before, but it turns out the third time’s a charm.

Still, the process seems to have taken a toll on her, and she starts becoming forgetful, missing doctor’s appointments and misplacing her medications. The horrific dreams she’s having starring the spooky strangers she keeps running into aren’t helping assuage her paranoia that someone is messing with her, either. Her husband Dex (Matt Czuchry), in classic shitty horror-husband mode, dismisses her concerns as hysterical and guilts her for her negligence, while their doctor (Denis O’Hare) congratulates him on a successful conception, even though Anna’s the one lying in the hospital bed. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. If it sounds obvious, that’s because it is as well.

Horror is a genre created to literalize the everyday monsters lurking within our society, whether it be the medical and legal systems that treat women’s suffering as ancillary, the misogynistic double standard that both exalts motherhood and diminishes its virtue, or the age-old American tradition of regarding women as incubators rather than human beings. These are all worthwhile issues to explore—which is why scores of horror fare have done so before, and with more tact.

Anna’s life consists of constant reminders of the struggles that you might read about in a freshmen-level gender and sexuality course. In one scene, she’s tasked with signing a doll of herself for a fan, a glaring metaphor for her lack of control over her own body, remarking how “her torso is so disproportionately small, my name won’t even fit.” Even the season’s epigraph from Genesis 3:16 spells out in flashing lights the show’s premise: “Unto the woman He said, ‘I will multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children…’” I half-expected the next shot to be a black-and-white photograph of Ruth Bader Ginsburg underscored by Taylor Swift’s “The Man.”

AHS tends to collect genre tropes and winking references like The Predator collects human spines, and then deploys them in the writing. Delicate, for the first time, directly adapts its story from an outside source, the pulpy yet stirring novel Delicate Condition by Danielle Valentine. So far, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this will wind up being an inspired decision, but it’s refreshing to see AHS try its hand at telling a singularly focused story around Anna’s plight rather than a large-scale, interconnected ensemble piece. Previous seasons tended to bite off more than they could chew by weaving excessive storylines in and out and attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the number of Ryan Murphy-regulars on screen at one time. Delicate teases enough threads of intrigue to lure viewers into its spiderweb of mysteries, from the suspicious death of Dex’s previous wife to how an unnamed character played by Cara Delevingne can slay both her fabulous outfits and (potentially) a bird fetus/ritual offering left outside Anna’s apartment building.

Perhaps because the story’s so narrow, there’s a dreariness to the proceedings, and it’s not just the hazy color scheme or traumatic subject matter. This is the problem: without enough of a sense of campy playfulness, the pace not only drags, but the lack of depth in the script shines especially bright. Shouldn’t a bald-faced riff on Rosemary’s Baby from the creator of Glee contain a little more meta-commentary on the material? Shouldn’t the main characters emit more charisma than the pile of corpses for which the series is known? Shouldn’t a show about spider demon babies be a little more, I don’t know, fun

Tone is half the battle with American Horror Story. Seasons in which the campy and poignant have mixed in seamlessly with the gory and grotesque (I’m thinking Coven, Murder House, and Roanoke, for starters) have already evinced the potential for the glorious chaos that American Horror Story has in its arsenal. So far, there’s little in Delicate’s first episode (which just premiered on FX, none were screened for critics) to signal that that spark has returned—except, stunningly, for one bonkers, perhaps brilliant, casting choice.

More than anything posed by the teasers or plot details released ahead of time, there was one question about the new season we were all dying to know: can Kim Kardashian act? The answer is no. But the better question, it turns out, is: can Kim Kardashian make Delicate worth watching? The answer is…she just might.

In her television debut (playing a character other than Kim Kardashian or Jasmine, that is), it appears that Kardashian might be the only one in the cast to understand the assignment. Does she deliver her lines with all the complex interiority of a Skims bra? Yes. Does she believably sell the character of Anna’s best friend/publicist/walking exposition machine? Not remotely. But her vacant valley girl droll and otherworldly habitus (not to mention her luxury of being gifted the funniest, most shockingly vulgar dialogue in the show) work in perfect alchemy to inject some life into this story about IVF gone wrong, which unfortunately can’t be said of Roberts or Czuchry, who appear about as capable of hamming it up as a rabbi on Passover. Kardashian isn’t a naturally talented actor, can’t convince me she’s a woman named Siobhan, and never for a second disappears into her role—and the show is all the better for it.

Her presence provides the only glimmer of a campy good time that can be found in the first episode, where too much time is otherwise devoted to building mystery around a story that’s been told before and hammering home a central message that’s already clear as day. It’s a rather tedious affair, but somehow Kardashian’s performance proves there’s room for something bolder, battier, and bloodier lurking within the body of this season. Perhaps the best way for Delicate to solve its nuance problem is to double down and do away with it altogether. 

The premiere of American Horror Story: Delicate is now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes airing weekly. 

Michael Savio is a freelance writer and former editorial intern at Paste based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in cultural reporting and criticism at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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