American Horror Story: 1984 kicked off Wednesday night, offering its much-hyped take on the blood, campiness, and thrills of vintage 1980s slasher films. The vintage take isn't a new one for the FX horror anthology series, as the trappings of the past frequently play a role in the show's various seasons, but 1984 is, in a sense, the first time the series has fully immersed itself in one specific bubble of vintage, encapsulating itself fully in that slasher genre and the era as only American Horror Story can. The result is a premiere full of twisted, bloody violence balanced with those poppin' '80s pastels, feathered hair, and a whole lot of totally tubular slang and pop culture references.
It's that over-the-top everything -- from the bloody opening sequence to the caricature-like approach to the '80s vibe -- that makes the 1984 debut possibly one of the series' strongest to date from a purely fun standpoint. It's campy and outrageous, and unlike some of the series' colorful characters, it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's an approach that finds itself settling into some strange space in between Stranger Things and GLOW in terms of its '80s-ness. It's a delight in that sense, one sorely needed after the weight of Apocalypse, but the real trick for the season will be whether or not it can take that treat and give it some substance with some tricks along the way.
The lack of tricks and twists is ultimately the weakest part of the story thus far. To say that the opening plot of 1984 is thin would be a bit of an understatement, as it's practically see-through. Right out of the gate, the series jams the real-world horror that is the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez (played by Zach Villa) into the story with a bit of an awkward, over-cooked subplot. There are a couple of other heavy-handed attempts to insert potential other looming threats, but, frankly, we don't know the core characters well-enough at this point to care. It's just obvious fodder to suggest that maybe Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) might not be the whole evil at Camp Redwood. It's enough for the premiere, but if this is the best we get from the plot over the course of the season, it's going to come apart soon-enough.
Of course, thin plot or not, 1984 is worth tuning into just for the cast. In particular, Billie Lourd is an absolute standout this season with her too bright, too loud, aerobics and sex-obsessed Montana Duke. All of the characters are caricatures, but Lourd gives Montana a warmth and a surprising depth. She has easily the best performance in the premiere and possibly the best character in the series. As Lourd was criminally under-utilized in last season's Apocalypse, here's to hoping she gets to shine a lot more in 1984. Pose alum Angelica Ross is also a major standout. There's a raw realness in her tell-it-like-it-is Nurse Rita that grounds the whole series and should serve to remind people just how great Ross is as an actress.
Ultimately, that's what elevates American Horror Story: 1984 from just an average premiere to one that is truly enjoyable and feels like a fresh start for the franchise. The plot is thin, the colors are bright, but the characters and key performances do an incredible job of keeping things just fresh enough to not dismiss this as another addition to an already over-bloated '80s nostalgia trend. Now we just have to wait and see if the season can use those performances to bolster its plot and build some real intrigue to go with the leotards, fake blood, and camp.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
American Horror Story: 1984 airs Wednesday nights on FX.