As FX’s American Horror Story enters its twelfth season, three things set apart its latest baby, Delicate, from its big siblings. One is the fact that it’s the first story based on a novel — Danielle Valentine’s Delicate Condition, a Rosemary’s Baby riff about an actress, Anna (Emma Roberts), trying to conceive via IVF. Another is that it’s the first season not to have co-creator Ryan Murphy as showrunner; instead, AHS newbie Halley Feiffer (American Crime Story: Impeachment) is fulfilling that role.
In combination, they signal a potential for American Horror Story to head in a cleaner and clearer direction, away from its longstanding reputation for sloppy plotting — but not too far from its gift for building buzz, since the third standout element is the headline-worthy stunt casting of Kim Kardashian as Anna’s BFF and publicist Siobhan. But whether it has the ability to deliver on all that promise remains an open question by the end of a just-okay debut.
American Horror Story: Delicate
The Bottom Line
A bit too delicate for its own good.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20 (FX)
Cast: Emma Roberts, Matt Czuchry, Kim Kardashian, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Denis O’Hare, Cara Delevingne, Julie White, Maaz Ali
Creators: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Developed by: Halley Feiffer, based on the book by Danielle Valentine
To be fair, it’s impossible to judge an entire season based on a single episode. But if the best premieres sink their claws into a viewer, Delicate manages only a light scratch — sharp enough to leave an impression, but not to hook someone in. Its in-media-res opening is creepy by any measure: Feeling a hand on her sleeping body, Anna turns to see not her partner, Dexter (Matt Czuchry), but a cloaked figure that flees into the night, leaving Anna’s own hands inexplicably bloody. Yet the hour as a whole feels disappointingly restrained. It lacks the lush weirdness that made Amazon’s similarly fertility-themed Dead Ringers so impossible to shake, or the eerie world-building that made Yellowjackets such an immediate smash — or, for that matter, the anything-could-happen zaniness that’s kept American Horror Story trending for a decade-plus.
There’s still time for Delicate to get there, though. In the meantime, it has other attractions, first among them a knack for eye-catching visuals. Its actresses don’t wear costumes so much as serve looks, from Anna’s “off-duty A-lister” beanie-and-sunglasses combo to Siobhan’s corset-inspired blazer and oxblood leather trench. A spike-studded stiletto is no mere accessory but a plot point; so is a gleaming gold tube of bright red lipstick. Meanwhile, the sets look at once cushy and chilly. Maroon-uniformed nurses glide silently across stark gray-white walls. A terrified woman sprints down an all-white hallway that wouldn’t look out of place in a Kardashian home tour.
Speaking of which: Time may tell how Kardashian fares when she’s given more intense material, since much of Siobhan’s screen time thus far is spent exposition-dumping. For now, however, 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 having literally starred in Murphy’s Scream Queens doesn’t prove much of one here. She’s okay at capturing Anna’s gnawing unease, but unconvincing when asked to convey full-blown terror.
Anna spends most of her time in the former mode, anyway. As she embarks on her third round of IVF, she’s plagued by the feeling that she’s being watched for some sinister reason. A strange woman lurks outside her building, studying a dead bird embryo inside a broken nest. Another confronts her at the fertility clinic, and snaps her photo before she’s dragged away. Someone seems to keep messing with her appointment calendar, and moving things inside her house. Dexter chalks up her worries to stress — “It’s okay, babe. You’re on a ton of meds, you’ve got a lot on your mind,” he reassures her with condescending benevolence. But she knows something’s off, even if no one else seems to.
That tension embodies Delicate‘s central theme, of the agony of existing in a body presumed to be for everyone else. “I feel like I’m violating myself,” she protests when handed a doll of herself to sign. “That’s called being an actress,” Siobhan deadpans in response. At the clinic, her complaints of pain are dismissed under the reasoning that “nothing worth waiting for is ever easy.” That Anna chose to become an actress, and chose to undergo IVF, only makes her experience more fraught. These are decisions that now threaten to rob her of the very agency that she wielded to make them.
So far, the series appears better at projecting the surface-level beauty of Anna’s world than digging into the ugliness lying just underneath. But then, Anna’s a cover girl too, and one about to discover just how nasty life can get. Delicate would do well to follow her into the muck, and let itself get a little messy.