TV Review - American Horror Story: Freak Show

This is the fourth season or the fourth iteration of the series by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. It's set in Jupiter, Florida, 1952. It centers on a sideshow circus-act, run by a middle-age woman named Elsa Mars, played by Jessica Lange. Elsa lives an existence not unlike Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950). She thinks herself to be a star, even though she's way over-the-hill. She gets jealous of anyone who tries to take her spotlight. She's desperate for fame. She's not an actress per se. She's a singer. Yet, despite being of her era, that of World War I, Elsa sings songs from the 21st century. In Episode 3, for example, Elsa sings Lana Del Rey's "Gods and Monsters."

It's Murphy and Falchuk utilizing the same technique as in their other series Glee. Yet, it's understandable and appropriate in there. When Elsa sings modern-day pop songs here, it's completely anachronistic, and it's either laziness to find more appropriate songs from that era or to invent new songs that fit.

The bigger focus for the makers of this series seems to be more on the makeup and other special effects. The performers in Elsa's circus act are actors who require a lot of prosthetic makeup or CGI to portray the "freaks" of this freak show. The first and shining example is Sarah Paulson who plays the Siamese Twins.

She's basically a woman with two heads on one body. Paulson plays both heads. Murphy directs the first episode of the season, the first episode in which she appears, and, at first, he frames his camera so that you only see one head at a time, but there are several medium shots that show both heads at once and where CGI incorporates Paulson's two performances at once.

The head on camera-left is Dot and the head on camera-right is Bette. Paulson plays both Dot and Bette. Dot is quieter, more cynical, bitter and private. Bette is more talkative, more personable and not as private. Dot is jealous of Bette because Bette can sing and Dot cannot. Dot dreams of literally cutting Bette out of her life and off her body.

Like Elsa, Dot is probably one of the few freaks who dislikes what she is. The rest of the characters are prouder of their deformities or biological differences. Some are only proud now. Some older ones had rough childhoods where they were ridiculed or shunned. One of which is Kathy Bates who plays Ethel Darling aka the Bearded Lady.

The Bearded Lady is a kind of groundskeeper and stage MC. She's Canadian, a former drunk and has an adult son named Jimmy, played by Evan Peters. Jimmy is known as Lobster Boy because both his hands are deformed and look like the claws of lobsters. Except, when we first see Jimmy, he's dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).

Besides Lobster Boy, Jimmy's other nickname could have been a riff of Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton could have called Jimmy instead Edward Penis-hands. In the Season 4 premiere, Jimmy is using one of the two, elongated digits that constitute his lobster hand, which arguably looks like a penis as a penis. Jimmy is seen deeply penetrating a woman with his lobster finger.

If you've seen the episode of The X-Files entitled "Humbug," then none of the other characters will be shocking or new. There's Meep the Geek, a dwarf who bites the head of chickens. There's Paul the Seal Boy, a man covered in tattoos who's actually a very tall, handsome and virile, Australian lover who just happens to have short arms that resemble a seal's flippers. There's Ma Petite, the shortest woman alive from India. There's Amazon Eve, the biggest and tallest woman around. There's also various others who don't do much in the first half of the season. There's Legless Suzi and the two Pinheads, for example.

Each episode brings a new threat to the freak show and like with Glee, the freaks or these misfits are meant to be our protagonists or our heroes who we're seemingly meant to champion, as they attempt to face these threats and overcome the challenges and prejudices pitted against them. Yet, it's difficult to champion or root for any of the freaks because at the outset and by the end of the premiere episode Murphy and Falchuk establish that each one is a murderer or willing to defend or be complicit in unjustified murders.

It's not as if it's a case of self-defense or an accidental killing. No, Murphy and Falchuk make them all outright murderers. Not only that, Murphy and Falchuk turn all the freaks into human butchers that do so without batting an eye. I know this series has the word "horror" in the title, so it needs horror, but the premiere episode and indeed the next four episodes already have that well covered.

In addition to the freak show, in the same town, there's also a serial killer who's introduced. The serial killer is overweight and dresses like a dirty clown who wears a nasty mask that covers his mouth. The clown is named Twisty because his signature act was twisting balloon animals. Yet, the first time we see Twisty is in a scene straight out of Zodiac (2007) where he kills a young couple having a picnic in almost the exact same way as the Zodiac killer does.

Twisty kills a bunch of other people in brutal ways. He also kidnaps and tortures children. Given that, you'd think that would be enough horror for this series, but Murphy and Falchuk need over-overkill. The resolution of the Twisty character was unsatisfying as well. It involves a supernatural element that didn't need to be. It's a deus ex machina in the name of Edward Mordrake and to me the whole Mordrake thing was a waste of time.

If nothing else, it helps to inspire a copycat, serial killer named Dandy Mott, played by Finn Wittrock. As a serial killer that we follow, Dandy might be better than the serial killer, played by Zachary Quinto, in Season 2 of American Horror Story. He's not the cold, calculating machine that Quinto was. Wittrock is a petulant child, a spoiled brat with serious mommy issues.

Michael Chiklis plays the Strong Man who's secretly gay. Angela Bassett plays the Three-Breasted Woman who thought she was a hermaphrodite. Denis O'Hare plays a freak collector named Stanley Mansfield who needs the freaks dead and Emma Roberts plays Maggie Esmeralda, the assistant to Stanley who falls in love with Jimmy.

Frances Conroy plays Gloria Mott, the doting mother of Dandy. Patti Labelle guest stars as Dora, the bitter maid of Gloria and Dandy, taking care of their mansion-like home. Gabby Sidibe plays Regina, the daughter of Dora.

The series is more comedic than it is scary, especially after the second episode. Some of the freaks are spotlighted, but the ones in the forefront aren't likeable other than Paul the Seal Boy. It's not because they look odd or are deformed, it's because Murphy and Falchuk again establish them all as murderers or complicit in murders with not much sympathy or empathy on display.

Finally, there's a candy-striper who Elsa meets at the hospital where the Siamese Twins are taken, played by Grace Gummer. The sixth episode has her go up against her super prejudiced father, played by Lee Turgeson. What he does when he realizes his daughter is in love with Paul is ridiculous, which is indicative of the entire show.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.


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