*Minor Spoilers for the first two episodes of Freak Show.
Two solitary figures seated amongst a room of empty chairs, a mother with her impatient son complaining he’s bored, waiting to be entertained. For those who have watched the previous AHS seasons, the horror anthology featuring talented actors who reboot themselves as new characters each series has been a television revelation. Murder House and Asylum were both fairly solid and satisfying, with last year’s Coven veering off in the back half to the point where much of its audience was disappointed, or strayed. We tentatively waited as rumors and photos of its fourth season confirmed the carnivalesque theme, unsurprisingly centered on a group of outcasts trying to be accepted for who they are. And while that’ll always prove an admirable plight, by this point in AHS the question we have for Murphy and company is, “Can you make it an interesting one?” — and with Freak Show, there isn’t a definitive answer.
As you’ve probably gathered from the various teasers and promotional materials, this fourth outing features Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars, a German expat who runs one of America’s last remaining freak shows. “Monsters Among Us” opens in Jupiter, Florida circa 1952 with a shadowy, peekaboo introduction to someone Elsa hopes will become her “Cabinet of Curiosities’” next big draw. Following the newcomer’s initial turn down with her inevitable acceptance, the rest of the core freak show gang is introduced: Evan Peters as “Lobster Boy” Jimmy Darling, his bearded mother Ethel (Kathy Bates sporting an indiscernible accent that fades in and out every other sentence), “Paul the Illustrated Seal” (Mat Fraser), Meep (Ben Woolf), and Natalie Grossman, reprising her role as Asylum’s lovable Pepper. All the usual moodiness and cool camera angles are on full display here; we follow the trail of freaks like children being led on Halloween parade toward a creepy wonderland. Through the banners and into a devilish mouth, we slowly traipse in where Jimmy stands waiting with Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), Paul, and Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin). Elsewhere in town, there’s a brutal killer on the loose, and both the cops and Jupiter townspeople are ready to suspect the obvious: Freaks! By the way, despite his name, Jimmy’s not such a darling when he hears that word; his personal impetus to action, if you will. By the time the introductions and murders are done, the hour is winding down with a quiet surprise and Lange’s ode to Marlene Dietrich; a dramatic performance of Bowie’s Life on Mars —artistically placed nearly two decades early.
With all the talent attached to Freak Show and deserved praise rained on Lange and Sarah Paulson for their past AHS performances, it may come as a shock that it’s so quickly clear the standout star is neither actress; rather, the man who plays the creepiest clown since Pennywise. Wearing a monstrous, pieced together “smile” reminiscent of Bloody Face, John Carroll Lynch (The Americans, House of Lies, Shutter Island) absolutely steals both opening hours as “Twisty the Clown,” an oddly contemplative, yet deadly fellow who somehow elicits sympathy even as he’s terrorizing here, winding toys there. Standing outside Elsa’s strange menagerie, he’s the uncaptured monster whose backstory you’ll want most.
Episode two, “Massacres and Matinees” opens with a nicely paced lead-in to the town’s latest murder scene; a clerk bringing back coffee for his boss gets a nasty surprise (I legitimately screamed), and there’s a terrific little E.T. nod. The second hour invites new cast member Michael Chiklis into the fold as strongman (in more ways than one) Dell Toledo, on the run with his best-of-both-worlds spouse, Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett) after he violently defended her dubious honor. Unimpressed by their physical attributes, Elsa eventually agrees to take on the couple in case her freaks need Dell’s protection, but his immediate assertion of power is more than she bargained for. Still, if his new ideas bring in the crowds, Elsa seems willing to overlook any excessive force.
After their brief first episode introduction, we’re given a closer look at the Motts; Frances Conroy’s doting dipstick of a mother, Gloria, who does everything she can to keep her nasty, sociopathic son Dandy (Finn Wittrock) entertained and under control. The bored, rich boy sees the world only through his self-pleasuring tunnel vision, though after Jimmy turns away the budding thespian, Dandy does make an interesting new acquaintance — perhaps, even a friend.
As for the show’s newest draw — conjoined twins, and opposite personalities Bette and Dot — Fräulein Elsa quickly tires of them (as will you), and does her best to manipulate one against the other. (At the time of viewing, the effects were incomplete so I can’t fairly comment on them.) There’s another anachronistic song performance, sadly even less affecting than Elsa’s.
Again, the best parts of this second episode involve Twisty’s alternately terrifying and morbidly funny antics, so I hope (and believe) we’ll see much more of this truly fascinating character. For those of you who already have Coulrophobia (fear of clowns), Twisty isn’t going to lay that to rest, but he just might make you want to look behind the mask. As for Murphy and Falchuk’s continued explorations for acceptance, the fourth American Horror Story outing may prove a little too on the nose. Sure, “Wir sind alle freaks” (we are all freaks), and we all want to be loved and accepted for who we are (witches, crazy, monsters, killers) — guys, we get it. If we’re going to take this journey to see the show, we need more than great actors trying to make the most of their stock characters; the sad, aging star, the earnest youth who uses violence when he can’t effect immediate change, the macho guy, and the overprotective mother. It takes more than freaky looking characters to draw us in beyond the initial stares, and more than pounding your audience with one message to keep us coming back for more. One can’t help but notice the parallels between Elsa desperately trying to raise her big tent’s dwindling attendees — that nearly empty audience shot that opened the first hour — and what feels like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s “throw everything,” last ditch effort to draw their AHS audience back in. But hunting down performers and recycled ideas may work no better for the showrunners than it does for Jessica Lange’s waveringly-accented, German mistress, who quickly realizes that it’s not the gimmick that keeps people coming — it’s what you do with those ideas to keep things interesting. Despite its potential and being the only series of its kind right now, if I’d seen only the languid, uninspired “Monsters Among Us,” it would have been easy to walk away. By the end of Freak Show’s second hour, there wasn’t really anyone beyond Twisty I was terribly interested in or cared about, but he’s just that good to keep me curious for now.
Additional upcoming actors include Denis O’Hare, Patti LaBelle, Gabourey Sidibe, Matt Bomer, Wes Bentley, Emma Roberts, Skyler Samuels, James DuMont, and *possibly* Neil Patrick Harris.