October is the most glorious month of the year, with crisp weather and Halloween decorations accompanying the change in seasons. It also marks the time of year when television loses exactly all of its marbles for TV’s most baffling anthology series, which is currently going by the name American Horror Story: Freak Show. A traveling carnival – currently not traveling – in a doomed small town is the concept co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk came up with for this year’s extravaganza, with a few new faces joining the duo’s growing troupe of actors. “Monsters Among Us” alone has enough murder, madness and mayhem in it that I can already call myself obsessed with this series all over again. Come one, come all! Even you, clown!
”Only by entering will you learn its secrets.”
Meet Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), a German ex-pat whose years of glory as a cabaret dancer are closer in her mind than they are in reality. (She ain’t got no legs!) She runs Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, or the Freak Show if you want to be crass. She and her crew are settled in Jupiter, Florida, a backwoodsy place where a murderer is on the loose. Elsa isn’t above using her wiles to keep the carnival afloat, but she’d rather just be bringing in audiences and profits naturally. She needs more attractions than just her bearded assistant Ethel (Kathy Bates), Ethel’s lobster-handed son Jimmy (Evan Peters) and the assorted cast of sideshow stereotypes. (There’s even a geek that eats chicken heads, so have no fear.)
This isn’t just Elsa’s story though. Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson) are telekinetic conjoined twins who become Elsa’s pet project. Or pet projects, I guess. They’re on the run for murdering their mother, and their entry into the Freak Show means they’re part of the family now, and they’ll be defended. In fact, Jimmy kills a detective that comes sniffing around to arrest them, but that was mostly because the cop referred to them as “freaks,” and not exactly to keep Bette and Dot safe. Still, though.
It’s so goddamned interesting watching Paulson as the two sisters. Dot is the straight-laced one who has reservations about opening themselves up to Elsa & Co., while Bette is the more naïve daydreamer and idealist. Their differing points of view are occasionally shown through split-screen, which is really creative, and Murphy (who directed the pilot) uses the series’ signature tilted shots to separate Bette and Dot in interesting ways. Paulson’s characters through the years have never been my favorites, but she’s doing something pretty phenomenal here. Add to that the cheeky cigarette gag, the quasi-ambidextrousness and other details and I’m in love. Or whatever emotion.
That Clown, Tho
Taking a page from Zodiac (and plenty of slasher flicks), Freak Show introduces audiences to the highly touted Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) via a couple getting romantic at some make out spot. Twisty wears a ghoulish mask across the bottom of his face, performing childish tricks for the girl until he is antagonized by the guy, when his unblinking stare turns evil. Suffice to say, the guy gets brutally stabbed all over his torso and the girl presumably meets a similar fate.
While that scene was only vaguely unsettling, given the desensitizing history of horror cinema, the part inside Twisty’s decrepit school bus home with the kids was nerve-rattling. I’m not so much freaked by just a silent dude in makeup, but when his balloon breaks and he starts losing his shit, I felt like I was in serious trouble for something. And he’s basically just making a lot of noise while throwing big rubber balls against a cage. It isn’t complicated, but it’s effective. We’re not quite sure what happened to him in the past, but it’s clearly knocked all but one or two of his screws loose. The fact that he sees Jimmy and the rest stabbing the dead cop doesn’t bode well for anyone. And I can’t wait.
”They’re my headliners.”
The underlying current in American Horror Story: Freak Show is the rift between the performers and the regular folks. Jimmy is determined to bring the freaks into the mainstream, attempting to break protocol by eating at a diner in public. Jupiter doesn’t want them there, although Elsa is dead set on making it work. When directly challenged by a candy striper woman who swears that she was drugged and raped by the carnies, Elsa shows her the strangest home video I’ve ever seen, which reveals the woman enjoying herself as she got stoned and boned to her heart’s content. I’m not quite sure what this was meant to do, besides proving we’re all a little freaky.
That point of view seems to be guiding the exquisitely named Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) the anti-latchkey child to Gloria (Frances Conroy), his outstandingly controlling mother. They are the only spectators during one of Elsa’s performances, and Finn makes it known that he wants to be a part of this life, buying out the whole show for themselves and then offering to buy Bette and Dot from Elsa, storming off when she denies them. They'll be back, but they won't be any more comfortable to watch.
Honestly, I’m blind to any faults this show has going for it, though I'm sure others will find them. Something as ridiculous as a fantasy performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” fits right at home here, despite the fact that the song would have been the most progressive tune the world had ever heard in 1952. I wasn’t thinking about reality then, so it didn’t matter. We don’t get to meet all of the characters in American Horror Story: Freak Show, as there are seemingly thousands, but that just keeps things interesting as this season moves on. And we have Jessica Lange, so who needs anybody else?
As premieres go, it wasn’t quite as strong as our introduction to Rubber Suit Man in the first season, but it’s definitely more confident in its universe building than Asylum and Coven. Yes, a show where a dude roughly fingers people with his messed-up hands can be considered confident. Though it’s too soon to really call it, I’m already on board with calling Freak Show a winner. Dark days are coming, and I’ll be watching from between the tent folds. See you there.
Other Thoughts Floating Beneath the Big Top
Can we all agree that these are the best opening titles this show has given us yet? It’s like Laika’s version of a Tool video.
Much respect to the supporting cast here. While it’s fine that they slapped a beard on Kathy Bates and called it a day, I’m glad they chose to use people with existing physical abnormalities rather than trying to do it all with prosthetics and CGI.
What dark corner of the universe did Ethel’s accent originate in?
“Every Thursday night at 9 p.m., he puts on Dragnet and climbs on top of me.”
D-licious Milk D-livery is the easiest Wheel of Fortune Bonus Round puzzle ever.
Nothing like a hospital for a “baby drowning” joke.
Having a cuckoo clock go off during this show was like seeing an actor say a former character’s most famous catchphrase.
For a series that references some pretty dumb shit sometimes, Gaslight was an excellent movie to bring up.
Did anybody else think “Smooth Criminal” when Elsa was wearing that white suit? Looking good, Lange.
“Mother made it toasty for you.”
Do my nails, Pepper!
Hearing Ethel tell her son Jimmy “No flipper action,” is so amazingly disgusting.
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Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper. Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.