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AMC is looking to add to its slate of reality series with two new half hour shows that sound like fun, but aren’t. The first, Freakshow, is another incarnation of the “wacky family” series that chronicles the exploits of former music producer Todd Ray and his brood as they operate the Venice Beach Freakshow. If you’re naturally drawn to the strange, and enjoy the oddities of a Victorian sideshow, and have already watched everything that TLC airs, Freakshow might hold some interest. But for the amazing tricks performed, there is an incredible lack of fanfare.
In the episode I watched, which featured sword-swallowing, Ray’s 19-year-old daughter Asia attempts this ancient art beginning with a coat hanger to help train her body to receive an actual sword. She’s taught by Morgue, a goth performer who shrugs at death saying, “I may die, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.” I’m not sure taking advice from someone with that attitude when stomach puncturing and death are on the table is the best idea, but Asia’s parents seem pretty chilled-out over the whole affair, with Todd even encouraging her and presenting her with her own sword.
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Of course, Asia survives the sword swallowing without incident, same as the other performers, relishing in their achievements. Todd Ray, in a voiceover, describes how the performers live for the appreciation of the crowd, but the shivering people on the boardwalk only give a smattering of applause as they record the tricks on their phones and make twisted faces (which viewers are bound to mirror when watching someone regurgitate a steel ball). What Ray’s performers do is fascinating, but the show seems to only skim the surface of their art. Ray himself is not much of a showman, either, shuffling out to greet onlookers in a hoodie — hardly presenting a ringmaster’s charisma — though his affection for sideshow cannot be denied. Despite the incredible stakes at hand, the excitement doesn’t translate.
The same issue plagues Immortalized, which airs after Freakshow. Hosted by Zach Selwyn, it pits one of four “immortalizers” (taxidermists Dave Houser, Beth Beverly, Takeshi Yamada and Page Nethercutt) against a weekly challenger. The work is judged by other taxidermists (like the Smithsonian’s Paul Rhymer and artist Catherine Coan), and inexplicably, comedian and writer Brian Posehn. Of course, what do judges matter when there are no prizes? The four immortalizers are treated in their intros, ludicrously, like demigods. Worse, even if these highly-touted “masters” are beaten by the challenger, the result is more or less “oh well.” There’s no money, no job offer, not even a toaster — just a point of pride for the winner. Why does this show even exist?
I’ll admit I knew absolutely nothing about taxidermy before watching Immortalized. How the craftsmen actually make models of the animals in the position they want and deal with skinning them and keeping the fur fresh was educational. Taking it further: why they do what they do, who they do their work for, what their favorite animals are to work with and why — this sort of thing would have been interesting. Taxidermy would have made a great subject of a documentary special. But as a competition show? It’s as lively as the animals displayed.
AMC has set itself apart as a purveyor of exceptional scripted television, but it really missed the mark with these two unscripted offerings. Immortalized just doesn’t make much sense, but Freakshow is the real disappointment. It has managed to do something truly extraordinary: making the strange and amazing simply boring.
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