By now, as we enter the fourth installation of the American Horror Story franchise, everything Ryan Murphy puts on the screen has become the norm. With any show, there’s an understandable struggle to keep storylines feeling new from season to season, but Murphy’s unique twists and memorable characters add an extra level of difficulty. When you start off really weird, how do you keep getting weirder without it becoming desperate or laughable? For Murphy, the answer is: you get freaky — really, really freaky.
Quite literally, in this case, as Season 4 revolves around an actual freak show. Set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952, Freak Show centers on a group of performers in one of the last surviving freak shows in America and their attempts to keep it going when the odds are against them. But this is all inconsequential, really; as its viewers know, the overarching plot isn’t important in American Horror Story, as the seasons often deviate from the premiere episode. The episodes tend to make sharp detours to explore different routes, sometimes resulting in an intriguing story and sometimes blowing up the premise and becoming a total mess — like last year’s promising Coven.
What matters more in American Horror Story are the bizarre characters, the stunning visuals, the creepy horror twists, and the way the show likes to blur the line between what’s actual entertainment and what is just plain disgust. Freak Show has all of these elements in the first two episodes. These two hours are more show than tell, concerned with gawking at this parade of freaks while humanizing them in a very explicit “We’re people too!” way. And yes: They are people, but, as Murphy and co. make clear, they are definitely also for us to gawk at.
The freak show is made up of “the strange, the weird, the bizarre, the unusual,” and Freak Show doesn’t pull punches. They are what you’d expect from your basic carny show, but the makeup and costume design are fantastic, breathing life into these basic characters: there is obviously a bearded lady (Kathy Bates); a set conjoined twins, both played by Sarah Paulson and often framed inventively, with one head practically floating at a canted angle in the corner of the screen, placing the focus on one sister while deliberately pulling focus away from the other; a boy with deformed hands nicknamed Lobster Boy (AHS favorite Evan Peters) who, predictably, gets the sort of grossly funny sex scene that this series loves; The Incredible Three-Breasted Woman (Angela Bassett), who demands more screen time; and so on.
Unfortunately, the characters and the setting — exteriors that are sprawling, dusty, and covered in leaves; interiors that are meticulously detailed and impressively symmetrical, with color palettes that almost simultaneously brighten and darken the rooms — remain far more interesting the actual narrative. The plot about the “freaks” trying to keep their carnival is underwritten, so far, so there isn’t much to become invested in even though it ties in with their desire to be included, rather than seen as monsters. Subtlety isn’t Murphy’s, or American Horror Story‘s, strong point, so Lobster Boy gives sweeping speeches like, “All we ever wanted was a place where we could feel safe and be just the way we are,” and rallying cries like, “We’re going to have to rise up and take it!” Combine this with segregation metaphors and it becomes a little too desperate and too easy.
Yet there are still plenty of reasons to keep watching. American Horror Story is almost always an entertaining time, because when it gets bad — and it often gets very, very bad — it’s hilarious to watch the show go completely off the rails. When it’s good, it’s one of the most interesting shows on television. As mentioned, the characters (and the actors behind them) are all perfectly campy, and most are comfortable enough with Murphy by now to know how to deliver the type of performance that will drive the show. There’s also a homicidal clown killing citizens, and he’s absolutely terrifying — he’s disgusting to look at, and the close-ups on his sinister smile are possibly the scariest images that American Horror Story has ever provided.
When Freak Show goes full camp, it’s almost breathtakingly ridiculous in a good way, such as the musical numbers within the episodes — freakish renditions of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” That’s when the show is the best: surprising, joyfully freaky, and wholly unique. If only the rest of each episode lived up to those scenes.