Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo
Screenshot: American Horror Stories

Before we get started, I’d simply like to say that I am incredibly appreciative of the fact that, with American Horror Stories, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have decided that shorter is often better. Despite the 90 minute double-episode premiere, both “Drive-In” and this week’s “The Naughty List” clock in at 40 minutes or less, and that’s a Christmas blessing. There’s less time to ruin things when you don’t try to overplay your hand and pad your thin concept.

“The Naughty List” is really as simple of a concept as you can get—“play stupid games, win stupid prizes” could really be the synopsis or tagline for many a straight-forward slasher—and that’s not a bad thing. Placing a group of clueless social media content creators as the expendable figures ready to be slaughtered by a killer just feels right. As we all know, the worse you make the characters, the more satisfying it is to watch them get killed off, and writer Manny Coto seems to have a field day indulging in their awfulness.

The episode’s inciting incident is as stupid as ever, but pretty much exactly the kind of thing I think that influencer culture is slowly moving toward: posting snuff. Not to get serious for a minute, but this actually isn’t an uncommon thing on the web, with videos of death and torture being casually uploaded online all the time and individuals having to screen these videos and how damaging it is to the psyche. The good thing about the episode is that it doesn’t exactly revel in the snuff, primarily focused on chastising and making fun of just how godawful the Bro House is for thinking it was a good idea to film someone jumping off a bridge to their death. It plainly says, “Yes, these are horrible people and we’re going to watch them die.”

And so we get the most important thing this episode brings us: Danny Trejo as a mall Santa. But, no, he’s not a mall Santa. He’s actually a serial killer who chopped up a mall Santa, shoved him into a gift box, took his place, and now is prepared to murder all of these idiots for ruining Christmas for a bunch of kids at the mall. The way the episode introduces Danny Trejo is exquisite; a simple setup of a man preparing himself that lets you know that shit’s going to go down. Much like John Carroll Lynch’s heightened performance in “Drive-In,” this is the kind of role where you know an actor is having a great time. It’s hard not to get swept up in the fun when Trejo lets out a menacing “ho ho ho,” giggles as he pours gasoline down the chimney, or sort of mumble-sings the words to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as he executes another man.

As for the executions themselves, they vary. I complained that the kills of “Rubber(wo)Man” were a bit stale, just a steady stream of lazy stabbings, and while “Drive-In” tried a little harder, they weren’t quite great. “The Naughty List” still struggles with kills, which are really meant to be the best part of a slasher. It’s playful to be sure; I’ll admit to having adored the candy cane arrows being fired out of a crossbow and laughed out loud at the effect of watching Charles Melton have his head twisted so far around that his spine just bursts out, but there’s something missing in the direction. Peristere, Sanchez, and now Max Winkler have all sort of stumbled in bringing anything unique to the death the show presents and, despite some fun concepts, their execution has been somewhat underwhelming overall.

But in Winkler’s defense, the episode does rather charmingly indulge in form when it comes to making fun of influencer culture. Most art that tackles social media mavens doesn’t actually get anything right, but they do mostly manage to make things fun, and “The Naughty List” is no exception. While the episode ultimately sacrifices that playfulness to go back to the usual Murphy house-style, many of its opening scenes are exactly what we deserve in an episode making fun of social media. As much as it approaches the aesthetics of screenlife movies, I almost wish the episode and its creative team had committed to bringing even more of that to the table.

From the get-go, with the introduction of Bro House, there is the hyperactive energy of someone scrolling through videos at light-speed. It’s not saying much as a satirical piece, but the overstimulated presentation and dedication to cramming in everything from TikTok dances to something as dated as the ice bucket challenge is admirable. Whenever the characters joke that they’re pushing thirty (“which is, like, 40 in influencer years”), you kind of have to roll your eyes at just how out of touch it all sounds. The self-awareness is there, but it feels like a boomer’s take on a culture they’re not actually a part of. There’s still humor to it, and it’s hard to get mad at something like this when it’s as breezy as it is, but I can’t help myself wishing it was a splash more thoughtful.

But, you know, who am I to complain about American Horror Stories when it’s stopped trying to be “about” something (like past seasons of Story have been) and so willing to be so stupid? “The Naughty List” is an episode of television that features its influencer characters thinking that queer baiting is the ideal way to gain followers after a backlash (pretty much turning into the opening of a Sean Cody video, except, y’know, “no homo”). It’s an episode of TV that has Danny Trejo wrapping someone up in Christmas lights and tossing them into a pool. Hell, it’s an episode of TV that ends with a white Christmas tree where all the decorations are body parts. And maybe that’s good enough.

Stray observations

  • A huge “thank you” to whoever picked the music for this episode (so many Christmas tunes!) because they included my favorite Christmas song of all time: The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.”
  • I really wish that the episode had played more with filming and streaming the kills because I actually think that would have really helped the execution of them. Like, there’s something about watching death through a camera or a screen that hits differently; it could add a sense of dread to the proceedings, as funny as they’re supposed to be.
  • I would simply pay good money to watch an ongoing series where Danny Trejo gets to go around killing different awful people on a regular basis dressed up as Santa.
  • I had never heard the word “homeysexual” before when referencing straight dudes who posture as gay for content and I hope I never hear it again. Maybe I will simply block it out.
  • The bit where they’re watching It’s A Wonderful Life to prove that “STRONG MEN ALSO CRY” sent me because that’s exactly the kind of bullshit that dudes would use to show they’re so emotional.
  • The line “bro means brother and this isn’t what brothers do” fully made me think of Josie & The Pussycats and Du Jour. “Du Jour means friendship!” “Du Jour means family!” “Du Jour means seatbelts!” “Du Jour means crash positions!”

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