We are all freaks.
Except for Jessica Lange. She is a fearsome, scenery-chewing superbeast whose line delivery on FX’s pandering, gratuitous, and way self-aware drama American Horror Story has launched GIFS galore, introduced “The Name Game” to a new generation, and makes me crack up every time I hear someone mention the words “knotty pine.” She’s been a faded Southern belle, a naughty nun, and a supreme witch. In AHS: Freak Show, Lange is back playing Elsa Mars, a German sideshow ringleader with delusions of stardom and a big secret.
This isn’t the highbrow supernatural pedigree of HBO’s sideshow drama Carnivale, but it’s probably the sideshow drama we deserve. Those phobic of clowns and spoilers should exit the tent immediately.
While buzz for this show has only risen since season one’s standalone story, known now as “Murder House,” debuted three years ago, subsequent seasons have been disjointed and ultimately disappointing. Asylum had some great things to say about gay and women’s rights in the 60s. But it was mushed up in a story of a creepy mental institution where both aliens and Anne Frank were likely to wind up. And there was a serial killer (of course), and a Frankenstein nymphomaniac, and a homicidal Santa Claus played by my beloved Ian McShane of Deadwood fame.
Last year’s Coven was an even bigger missed opportunity. How do you screw up couture-wearing witches in a war with the most famous voodoo priestess of New Orleans? By trying to say something serious about America’s past with slavery and current racial tensions amid Stevie Nicks cameos, hexes, and rapist minotaurs. There was lots to be made uncomfortable by in Coven, but not always in the way I imagine show creator Ryan Murphy would want them to come off.
Yet the biggest sin for me was casting the absolutely incredible Kathy Bates and a radiant, gleefully evil Angela Bassett to give Jessica Lange a run for her money, then spending entirely too many hours on a goddamn love triangle between whiny teenagers. Emma Roberts over Kathy Bates?! Witches, please.
So, it is with a raised eyebrow that I watch Freak Show. I’m not reviewing every episode, because I’m still drained from finding new ways to say “This show sucks” after the last season of True Blood. But I’ll pop in from time to time throughout the season to discuss some madness.
And holy shit—American Horror Story is off to an insane and strangely beautiful start.
- First things first: Jessica Lange sang “Life on Mars?” cabaret-style. In 1952.
- Our introduction to the town of Jupiter, Florida in 1952 is through the eyes of conjoined twins Bette and Dot, played by the fantastic Sarah Paulson. One wants to be a star, one doesn’t, but both have to join Elsa Mars’ traveling circus to escape a crime they committed. Fighting conjoined twins is pretty much the perfect symbol for struggle and there are hints of future tensions as both women seem to be falling for, er, ladies’ man “Lobster Boy” Jimmy. And one sister has talent, while the other is less of a natural.
- The other “freaks.” There’s a mix of actors in prosthetics—Kathy Bates with a beard! Pepper the Pinhead is back!—and real sideshow performers and human oddities. Using “freak” to describe disabled and transgender people nowadays is unthinkable to anyone with an ounce of empathy, but in the 1950s, it’s a pejorative that Mars’ troupe is trying to reclaim in the name of a forged family. (Not so unlike the characters on Carnivale, after all.) And you can tell it’s skating uncomfortable territory for the producers, too, and maybe that’s why they released a series of interviews with the actors playing the geek, the Amazon woman, the “Illustrated Seal,” and the Guinness Book of World Records’ “World’s Smallest Woman” to emphasize their humanity beyond their bodies and to show that they’re totally on board with being portrayed as exploited.
- Frances Conroy is playing a wealthy socialite who wants to buy her spoiled son a freak of his very own. There’s definitely some weird Mommy issues getting played here.
- By episode’s end, we get a big hint at the tragedy that sidelined Elsa on her way to becoming a real movie star. The woman we see today wasn’t always a sad Norma Desmond figure. But whatever happened to her, she loves her children, even as she knows she’s using them for her own meal ticket.
What’s Less Great:
- Twisty the Clown is this season’s new serial killer and he’s definitely scary, but right now so distanced from the plot, that I was just not that interested.
- Kathy Bates’ weird Pennsylvania Dutch (maybe?) accent.
- The opening credits are a Big Deal to AHS fans, but I wasn’t impressed with the Quay Bros.-lite stop motion affair. Not after last season’s haunting, grainy number.
- Not even one episode in and already a woman was drugged and raped. I don’t care if she said she liked it afterwards, she was drugged and couldn’t give consent. And AHS has used sexual assault as a plot point too often. It’s made women I know personally stop watching the show after Asylum.
What’s Going to Keep Me Watching:
- Jessica Lange sang “Life on Mars” cabaret-style. In 1952. And someone sings Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in an upcoming episode. Is there a time-traveler among the tents?
- There’s no polite way to say this. At all. What Jimmy does with his lobster claws for extra cash and kicks. This is the ridiculous, trashy, adult thrills I love about the show.
- We haven’t even met Angela Bassett and her much-hyped three boobs. Nor have we met her character’s strongman husband, played by Michael Chiklis.
- Jessica Lange’s dresses.
- The cinematography of Freak Show is positively gorgeous. Bright carnival colors stand out against an iron-gray sky, Edison bulbs abound, and forced perspective shots are frequent. Dot and Bette are often filmed in clever split-screens, reminding me of Brian De Palma’s camerawork in Carrie and, more aptly, Sisters. The horror movie nods on this show are often clever, but this season has been elevated to a new stylistic level. Right now, this is the most beautiful and the most richly human the show’s ever been. I’m so in.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10PM E/PT on FX.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering TV and gaming news. She’s also a guest on the latest episode of Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast discussing Game of Thrones. And the resident Hannibal fannibal at Boing Boing. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci