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.