American Horror Stories’ latest episode has a promising premise. Pregnancy horror is the genre of one of my all-time favorite films (Rosemary’s Baby) and I will unfairly compare all works to it, but the idea of a playful spin on it with Billie Lourd seemed like a chance to do something better than most recent knock-offs have. The synopsis that FX on Hulu offers for the episode—“A wife does the unthinkable for a chance at a successful pregnancy”—implies something in tune with that genre. But, well, it’s not. Instead, “Ba’al” gives its protagonist a child within the first 10 minutes. How does she finally have a child after trying IVF five times (and being recommended to not continue by her doctor), you ask? Well, pop a statue of Ba’al, god of fertility, under your bed, and you’re guaranteed an offspring in no time at all.
The episode lazily plays at Rosemary’s Baby plotting every so often without really committing to it, instead becoming a kind of haunted house movie and/or demon movie that isn’t very interesting. It’s all just… painfully generic. Even the opening credits, which so far have been delightfully creative and themed to each episode, feel like they were done last minute; just a mish-mash of the kind of images you’d find in any forgettable horror release that went straight to streaming, from pentagrams to demon shadows. It’s all about the aftermath of pregnancy, the exhaustion and frustration that comes with having a child. But I’m sorry to say it’s no Babadook.
Rather than try to comment on the way women navigate postpartum depression, writers Manny Coto and Ali Adler have zero interest in diving beneath the surface with a character like Liv. Its grandest proclamations come in the form of your basic TV therapist talk, with someone actively stating, “No, a baby cannot hate its mother, but it’s not crazy to sometimes get that feeling.” There is no attempt at going deeper into that concept because it’s too busy having a pointless ouija board scene for kicks.
At the least there’s something interesting about Lourd’s performance here. Everyone around her is void of anything resembling personality, but she actually gets to try doing something. Some moments she comes across as though trying to be a Goop-inspired new age mom truly succumbing to the exhaustion, and it works. The few times she gets to get a little crazy are ideal for her, but that Sanaa Hamri cast someone adept at deadpan delivery and saddles her in a role that allows her little to no chance for getting a laugh is just baffling. She spends half the episode practically looking asleep or awkwardly pouting, and it’s a damn shame.
But so much of the episode feels lazy. Ba’al could be replaced with practically any demon who’d be down to bone and the plot beats are not just predictable but uninspired. Worst of all are the twists that come up near the end. Now, look, I don’t like becoming the person who nit-picks logistics in TV, but the entire shitty noir twist at play here is miserable executed and staged. The gaslighting of Liv is nonsensical at best, but if the show bothered to lean into its humor instead of using it as a lazy twist, it could have worked. It feels more like an afterthought than anything here, pretty much an excuse for the actual Ba’al to show up and go on a poorly lit murdering spree. The deaths are as uninteresting as the plot twist reveal, and even more boring is the way the episode closes out. But the sensibility of American Horror Stories is present at the bitter end. Of course the people that work on this show would close an episode by having a woman wanting to fuck a demon just to have another baby, but it’d be nice if they’d have the decency to be that playfully stupid the whole time instead of dragging us along to get to that point.
The thing with doing an episode like “Ba’al” is that it has to, at the bare minimum, be more interesting than other recent television works that play with demons, pregnancy, and children. I admittedly feel so little motivation to write about this episode because there’s just not much to say about it, and my thoughts keep going back to another show currently on air: Evil. Evil has done, well, kind of everything that “Ba’al” does, but much better, in a number of episodes. It’s got evil sperm being put into women going through IVF, potentially possessed children and fetuses, demon hauntings that are actually both funny and scary, and actual navigations of motherhood and psychology that are compelling to watch. I wish the latest American Horror Stories was even half as good as any given episode of Evil. Sadly, it’s not, but at least next week will offer something completely different (or so I hope).
- Can I just say, once again, watch Evil? I’m sorry, I just really love that show, as well as most of Robert and Michelle King’s other work, and I simply try to highlight it whenever possible.
- May be dumb, but something that finally hit me today was how bland I find so much of the set design on Murphy’s shows, particularly AHS. There’s such a sterility to every bedroom and household that exists within his work and where it sometimes works (say, Nip/Tuck), I just find it kind of ugly and tiresome here. They feel totally un-lived in and like sets instead of places where anyone would actually exist.
- In what universe does NCIS spend hours making a guy look more like a demon than a corpse? I don’t watch NCIS but I also don’t think it would have something that looks more like a Buffy villain than a dead body.
- Okay, no, sorry. I’m here to nitpick again. What in the fuck was this incredibly long con job by a guy who didn’t want to have a baby and just wanted money? Like, he put years into this plan and his group of friends was just going along with it? It’s just so dumb and not at all creative. I’m so annoyed by the logistics of it! Find a better way to gaslight your wife, my guy!