I honestly wasn't looking forward to this season of American Horror Story. Coven descended into such weird madness near the end that I wasn't entirely sure that I was watching the same show I had begun. Let's just say that sometimes the knowledge that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk created Glee comes roaring back into focus.
And freaks? Really? Are we going to honestly do something that still feels like we were all living in a Ray Bradbury for a century? It seemed like a very cheap pop, but I have to admit that the show finally regained some of its gravitas.
Jessica Lange is back in charge once again, though honestly I think it would have been nice for her to sit a season out. It's not that she's bad in Freak Show. Far from it.
It's just that she's really beginning to feel like the same character over and over again, and the German accent isn't helping. Don't get me wrong, watching her sing "Is There Life on Mars?" is up on my top ten list of television musical numbers ever, even if it did make me wonder if I'd fallen asleep and woken up in a Baz Luhrman flick. Even with the startling revelation at the end where she shows that she hides what she makes others parade around doesn't really distinguish her enough from previous characters like Sister Jude to really make a difference.
As always, the backbone of the show comes from Sarah Paulson, who does double duty as the conjoined twins Bette and Dot. Physically they are based on Abigail and Brittany Hensel with their two-headed appearance, but their story mimics the famous Daisy and Violet Hilton who appeared in Freaks. There's was a tragic tale of constantly being taken advantage of, and it looks like we're going to be seeing much of the same sad fate here.
Paulson plays the roles perfectly, switching effortless between the hardnosed and prudish Dot and the dreamer Better. In this she is aided by Ryan Murphy's masterful use of splitscreen, the best since Brian de Palma. Like Orphan Black you forget that they are really the same woman.
One thing that's always been hard to like about American Horror Story is that it sometimes feels as if it takes a too easy path. A few hours on Wikipedia will show you the inspirations behind many of the characters, and of course much of the show's first episode owes its existence to Tod Browning's legendary cult film. The rage and propensity of the Evan Peters's Jimmy Darling to use his deformed hands in sexual intercourse is right out the tale of the real Lobster Boy, Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr. Some might find it neat that there is some root in fact, but I wonder if it's lazy.
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On the other hand, I have to hand it to Myrphy and Falchuk. Like Browning before them they had the balls to cast people with real deformities. At least two of these, the smallest woman in the world Jyoti Amge and "The Illustrated Seal" Mat Fraser, are quickly becoming the best part of the show. The former is a sweet doll that brings a happiness to the depravity and blood, and Fraser is a natural showman with a voice that I'd listen to reading the phone book. He is also, I must say, dapper as fuck.
But is it scary?
That's always the question, isn't it? What American Horror Story aims to do is largely impossible, but they do it better than it's ever been done. Yes, it is scary. Our Big Bad is a stereotypical killer clown that turns everything up several notches until you're cowering in your seat. The real horror, though, comes from Finn Wittrock as the strange Dandy Mott. A spoiled, strange boy, he buys out the whole freak show for himself and his mother, and later attempts to buy Bette and Dot.
The theme is already set. Who are the monsters? The monstrous to look at or the monstrous inside? I am looking very much forward to exploring which is which in the coming weeks.