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“What you are about to see will astound your very senses and harrow, yes, harrow your soul.”
If Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were around to debut American Horror Story: Freak Show to American audiences of 1952 – when this Season 4 iteration is mostly set – there is no doubt that the souls of all viewers would indeed be harrowed and astounded. Desensitized 2014 TV watchers may not feel the same kind of awestruck revulsion, but in true American Horror Story style, there are a vast number of subject points to chew on in this small town carnival setting. Psycho clowns, bearded ladies and lobster hands are only clawing the surface of this erratically mature new storyline. Come on down, and tell the ticket lady Jimmy Darling sent you.
Welcome to the Freak Show. Front and center – but for how long? – is Elsa Mars, a German-accented Jessica Lange, predictably always seen with a cigarette in her hand and her character’s regrets behind her eyes. She’s struggling to keep this traveling carnival afloat, as fewer people are making it to the shows,challenging her ability to create profits. Elsa chooses to remain in Jupiter, Florida, but Jupiter, Florida wants very little to do with her and her crew.
The aforementioned Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) is a go-getter who wants the world to accept his disfigurement and those of the show’s freaks. (But don’t call them freaks to Jimmy’s face, because that idea might get you in trouble.) He’s backed by the towering Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser), pinhead Pepper (Naomi Grossman) and more, and they’re a family that sticks together through thick or thin. Jimmy’s mother is the bearded lady and Elsa’s second banana Ethel, as portrayed by Kathy Bates with an accent that sounds like “upside down Irish.” Though Jimmy doesn’t know it, his father is Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), a strongman thug married to the three-breasted Desiree Dupree. (They don’t make their glorious appearances until the second episode.)
The carnival isn’t just threatened by the freaks' secrets and angered local townsfolk; there’s a murderer on the loose, and he just so happens to be a mostly silent, hulking, filthy-as-shit clown. It’s the clown we’ve been waiting for for months, and while he still doesn’t come close to the terror of Tim Curry’s Pennywise, John Carroll Lynch’s hauntingly manic presence puts this villainous monster in the upper clown echelon. His mental disturbance is larger than his sadistic slasher movie impulses, and Murphy & Co. are perfectly game to play up the absurd as well as the violent spookiness. (The scenes inside his school bus hut are hysterically uncomfortable.) As the clown is arguably the biggest “horror” element in this season, at least so far, American Horror Story once again falls on the wayside when it comes to the titular genre, but the darkly comedic flair and unnerving approach still make this uniquely engaging TV.
That’s about as objective as I can get, because I absolutely love this show in every way possible. The biggest surprise for me was how Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins Dot and Bette were handled. Though it takes a little time to grow accustomed to watching Paulson react to herself, the way their story and interactions are presented (sometimes with the use of splitscreen P.O.V.) is excellent and remains well within this show’s signature aesthetic. Bette is the more emotionally driven one, while Dot is more reserved and pragmatic, and both have their own ideals and talents that the other doesn’t, which could possibly be their undoing. Pun intended. Their relationship is already more complex than almost anything in this show’s short history, and the thought-provoking moments are combined with amusingly pleasing bits like one of them taking a drag of a cigarette while the other exhales the smoke, or one reading while the other is tanning.
Come one, come all. You'll find everything here. Intentionally anachronistic pop song performances with a full carnival band? Check. Someone biting the head off of a chicken? Check. The smallest woman in the world? Check. Frances Conroy as an overbearing mother whose son Dandy (Finn Wittrock) is a whiny brat who escapes boredom and his mother’s clutches by finding a dangerous new path in life? Check. I fully expect and prematurely embrace the point at which American Horror Story: Freak Show flies off of the Ferris wheel rails, but this is a solid foundation upon which the show’s writers and directors can build a multi-level madhouse, with an impeccable cast acting it all out. And we don’t even have to go to Jupiter, Florida for admission.
Tell your children this isn’t “that kind of circus,” and find American Horror Story: Freak Show when it debuts on FX on Wednesday, October 8.