This review of the American Horror Story: Freak Show premiere contains spoilers.
It is October and American Horror Story has returned to FX in its latest guise, Freak Show, to supply campy scares and cheap thrills. Now in its fourth season, the anthology series has showcased quite the number of tricks and treats, and after the seams started to show in last season’s aimless girl power powwow AHS: Coven, it’s a wonder whether showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have enough brainpower and gas left in the tank to capture the manic energy and shock filled fun of the earlier installments. After that lackluster last outing, can Freak Show get the AHS train back on the right track?
If tonight’s extra-stuffed premiere is any indication then, well, I’m not quite sure. There’s a lot to digest in this episode, with much of it going over like gangbusters and some of it leaving me scratching my head. One thing is for certain – this is still the American Horror Story you know and love, the tone hasn’t changed, but the scope feels a bit bigger.
In retrospect, it seems like maybe Coven suffered from a scaled back budget and production design after the period-set Asylum, but Freak Show once again takes us into the past, this time in 1952 Florida, so elaborate, period-appropriate sets and costumes doll things up. This season sports a mammoth set piece in the carnival that the freaks live in. “We had to build an entire city. We built an entire huge compound and then we had to build the interior of all those buildings on set. It’s all period,” Ryan Murphy told Entertainment Weekly, and you can feel the gravitas of the production design throughout the episode.
Also like Asylum, we have another crazed killer as a chief antagonist. Last season missed a volatile presence like Asylum’s Bloody Face, but this season, we just may have a villain to one-up him. Clowns terrify most Americans, and AHS’ psycho-clown killer Twisty, played by John Carroll Lynch, will surely produce many nightmares in viewers. The way he stalks his prey, mostly in pure daylight in this episode, is genuinely frightening, and I can’t honestly say that about any of the proceedings from Coven.
Coven tried, and failed, to tell a story that served as an allegory for equality, but as the season moved on, the writers mostly forgot about the themes they set out to foreground. This year still seems to be set on the outsiders of society, with Evan Peter’s fin handed Jimmy Darling delivering a couple of earnest monologues on the subject. There’s also a thread about sexual repression running throughout this premiere, but it manifests itself in odd ways, like Darling servicing women with the, umm, for lack of a better word, “the shocker,” and a very strange segment about a freak orgy. These scenes, along with a rendition of “Life On Mars” by Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars, are so puzzling, it’s hard to see what they’re supposed to accomplish, other than to drive home the fact that Mars is obsessed with being a star.
Speaking of Lange, I think her charms are starting to wear thin. Last year, she took the camp to the max and was one of the only bright spots of the season. Seeing her strut around like the head bitch in charge again, this time with a ridiculous German accent, now just feels old. Lange has said she plans to take the next season off, but maybe it would have served her better to take a break a little earlier.
Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson is set to steal the show this year. As conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tatter, Paulson plays both heads, each with conflicting personalities, with the help of some flawless effects. The twins accidently murdered their mother, and to help them escape persecution while also serving her own interests, Elsa Mars brings them to the Freak Show. Not only do the dual heads not look ridiculous, they provide some cool camera tricks, like split screen showing both of their perspectives and warring inner monologues. One head breathes in smoke, the other blows it out. It’s something we haven’t seen on this show before, and that’s rare.
Between the twins and Twisty, we might just have something here, but if Lange continues to suck the air out of every scene she’s in like every installment that’s come before, we might be in for another down year. The premiere is surely engaging, but so is every AHS premiere. Will we be going somewhere new this year, or is it just another trip around the same carousel? Stay tuned, dear readers!