Of all the premises of all the seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, the fourth--American Horror Story: Freak Show (Wednesdays on FX)--is the Ryan Murphiest. Much of Murphy’s work (Popular, Glee) involves sympathy for the outcast and alienated. And it’s hard to render that much more literal than in a season among the misshapen, multi-appendaged, chicken-head-biting denizens of Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
We find the show having pitched its tents in Jupiter, Fla., in 1952, amid bad times that are about to get worse. The young medium of TV is leaching away the audience from roadside attractions. (Goodbye, Human Skeleton--hello, Red Skelton!) On top of that, bodies are turning up dead, the work--at least most of them--of a serial killer, a hulking, shabby, silent clown (John Carroll Lynch) wearing a mask with a leering smile. He’s unconnected with the freak show (so far as we can tell), but the carnies--mistrusted under the best of circumstances--are automatic suspects, leaving ringmistress Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) under pressure of money and the law.
We should all only hope that someone, someday, loves us as much as AHS loves Lange. Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have again cast her as an imperious, jealous, yet somehow sympathetic diva, this time with a Teutonic twist. (Whether doing a southern drawl on Coven, a Yankee rasp on Asylum or her Weimar cabaret-croon here, too much accent is never enough for her.) When a local hospital comes across conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson and Sarah Paulson), two heads and spines sharing a torso and limbs, Elsa sees her new headliner--or doubleheadliner--and her own ticket to fame.
Lange is both star and muse for AHS, which has used her over and again as a glamorous, tragic villain. She’s is fearsome and motherly here, plotting and dreaming of fame, controlling but also protective of the performers she calls her “monsters”--like a German Lady Gaga with a touch of Marlene Dietrich and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig. (The premiere sells the latter parallel by giving her a show-stopping climactic performance--David Bowie's glam-rock classic "Life on Mars"--whose anachronism is justified, beyond the play on Elsa's surname, by the simple fact that it is awesome.)
It’s Paulson, though, who gets the show’s killer role(s). Bringing her to walking, talking two-headed life is achievement enough. In the rough cut screened for critics, there’s an uncanny-valley effect to the CGI that it's possible the final air version will smooth out. But the real special effect is Paulson, who invests the two sisters with such distinct personalities--Dot suspicious and rigid, Bette naive and starstruck--that I quickly forgot about the wizardry and saw them as people joined in an unhappy partnership. (They even have different opinions on the morality of masturbation, a bit of a problem when you share both hands and genitalia.) The way the two Paulsons carry themselves and react to each other--even argue--is a triumph of both editing and performance. She’s her own best co-star, playing her own worst enemy.
Like many an AHS season, the early going of Freak Show is a stew of ideas about identity and desire, plus a lot of things that appear to come up because they’re weird or provocative or look cool. There’s a theme of how the majority society is repulsed by alterna-bodies but also finds them intoxicating, even erotic; Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters), for instance, finds that his large, fused fingers make him popular with the ladies behind closed doors, even if he can’t order in a diner without trouble.
Peters is one of several returnees from the AHS Repertory Players. We're also re-introduced to Angela Bassett, Frances Conroy, and Kathy Bates, as Jimmy’s protective mother the bearded lady, whose heavy accent, if I'm hearing correctly, I place somewhere in the greater Philadelphia area with a couple of detours to the south. Newcomers to the troupe include Michael Chiklis, playing strongman Dell Toledo--someone had a lot of fun with the names this season--who emerges in the second episode as Elsa's business rival.
But who are the monsters here? The show finds itself both critiquing the fear of the Other and--what with its murderous clown and various other bloody twists--feeding that same fear. This may be the old message that if you tell someone they’re a threat long enough, they eventually become one. But we’re also talking American Horror Story, which has a history of simply going for the most intense choice in any given moment, emotional or narrative consistency be damned. It works better more on the level of a dream than an essay. In AHS: Asylum, that grew into a stunning story of totalitarian control; in last year’s Coven, it slopped formlessly everywhere like a cauldron bubbling over. But no refunds! That’s the kind of show you bought yer ticket for.
And it’s a damned fine-looking one. From the premiere (directed by Murphy), its palette is more luscious and vibrant than past AHS seasons; the animated opening credits--sprightly deformed skeletons capering about--are ghastly and terrific. The show has a vintage-collector’s delight in the details of this specific brand of horror. (Among the nods to the 1932 horror classic Freaks, the first episode uses the signature phrase “one of us” two times.)
I’d be lying if I said I had any idea where this is going; after the two episodes screened for critics, despite all the accumulated bodies, Freak Show is more style than story. (The killer-clown plot, for instance, is terrifying without really being engaging. The early scenes in which he abducts and terrorizes a young woman and a small boy are tough to take, but he’s more monster than character so far.) But there’s enough talent and intensity here for me to step behind the tent flap, to see if all this can cohere into something super freaky.