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I would enjoy being transported back in time to the bygone era when circus sideshows featured human oddities among their gleefully seedy cons — the sword-swallowers, the bearded ladies, the barkers who shouted “Step right up, folks, to see the Two-Headed Girl!” — all of which makes me an ideal audience for Ryan Murphy’s latest edition of FX’s premier scare-fest, American Horror Story: Freak Show. Alas, I found it insufficiently lurid — slow-paced and obvious. And if the show can’t even appeal to a viewer like me, eager to be hoodwinked by its premise, what hope does it have to lure into its tattered tent those more squeamish or more indifferent to circus lore?
This new AHS iteration is, as always, a gorgeous-looking production featuring many excellent performances. Set in 1950s small-town Florida, the show makes clear that co-creators Murphy and Brad Falchuk immersed themselves in the period details of old-fashioned carny atmosphere. You can almost choke on the dust on the fairground floor, feel the greasiness of the thick makeup the circus performers wear. I would never say that Kathy Bates was born to play a bearded lady, but by gosh, she’s wonderful in the way she embodies the gruff, chin-whiskered Ethel Darling. Bates pulls off the tricky task of portraying a performer who’s stiffly self-conscious in the spotlight glare of the big top, without seeming so herself.
There’s near-wizardry in the way Sarah Paulson has been filmed as the show’s two-headed girl, Bette and Dot Tattler. If only the imagination it took to achieve that special effect had extended to the storytelling. Based on the first two episodes, Freak Show is a variation on previous AHS scenarios, with Jessica Lange again serving as a wicked, dictatorial yet ultimately pathetic leader of weaker souls. This time, she’s Elsa Mars, a German would-be singing star who oversees a traveling sideshow called “Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” As always, Lange excels at imperiousness, but so far, Elsa is a lot of sneer, some self-pity, and little substance.
The fundamental problem in the opening hours is the lack of an original storyline to move the show beyond a series of gaudy shock reveals, such as the unique anatomy Angela Bassett’s Desiree displays in the second episode. The plot isn’t much different from the granddaddy of all freak-show films, Todd Browning’s 1932 Freaks — unusual performers band together as a defensively hostile group, persecuted by the “normal” citizenry repelled by them. This notion of superficial differences that provoke cruelty and result in alienation is a theme that resonates deeply with Murphy and runs through his shows such as Nip/Tuck and Glee as well.
The “freaks” in AHS periodically lash out, and yet we in the audience know, as the cornball dialogue has it here, “If they just got to know us, they would see that we’re just like them!” and “We’re people, just like everyone else!” Both of these lines are delivered by veteran AHS ensemble player Evan Peters, whose character Billy has deformed hands that earn him the nom de cirque “Lobster Boy.”
Thus far, the show’s most dramatic figure of fright is a horror-fiction staple: the murderous clown. This one is notably unoriginal in appearance, its mad gaze and large slash of a mouth a visual rip-off that crosses the Batman comic art work of Brian Bolland with the Heath Ledger, Dark Knight version of the Joker.
Each incarnation of AHS has been characterized by plot twists and turns that take the series down different paths than its opening episodes initially suggest. This is one of the strengths of Murphy as a storyteller: his willingness to defy conventional methods of linear TV plotting. So I hope he and Falchuk have some better, more novel surprises to spring on us as the season proceeds.
AHS could use more of the spirit of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, in which the tricks of the trade are revealed over the course of its portrait of a dowdy carnival. But that would mean being genuinely interested in the power of human desires — lust, ambition, greed — whereas Freak Show is permeated primarily by Ryan Murphy’s typically ironic sympathy for the freaky.
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