It didn’t take long for Freak Show to fall into the same traps as Coven. Sure, stylistically it was amazing, and, before he was killed off, Twisty the Clown — arguably the series’ scariest character — was a zeitgeist moment. But Lange’s character, Fräulein Elsa, was the same egomaniacal has-been Lange has played for four years now. Her Cabinet of Curiosities — the titular freak show — was full of color, but, after a few weeks, it also became evident that it was full of unlikable stock characters. And if Coven’s witches-vs.-voodoo shtick was heavy-handedly racist, then, by god, Freak Show’s message of civil rights was, for the few episodes the writers remembered it, so blatant that the characters themselves actually spoke of it.
Beyond that, Freak Show exacerbated American Horror Story‘s tendency to stop developing any given character after establishing one defining trait. (Lange: vindictive; Paulson: doe-eyed — with two heads!; Peters: the golden boy; Chiklis: the wounded, closeted tough guy; etc.). Then there’s the overreliance on Lange’s musical performances as early ratings draws, and the inexplicable disappearance of these performances halfway through the season.
It’s as if the writers (and, admittedly, the viewers) thought that we all only wanted the big stuff. But it turns out that, without strong central characters, a bunch of deaths becomes nothing more than a bunch of deaths. And so we get a string of gorier and gorier set pieces with little to anchor them. We have two-episode arcs devoted to minor characters (Wes Bentley as an evil Halloween ghost, Neil Patrick Harris as an insane puppeteer). How are we supposed to care about anyone when the focus changes every week, and the characters change every year? The writers have copied the structure of an ensemble show like Orange Is the New Black, but they’ve forgotten that they don’t have the benefit of past seasons to ground the show when each week brings forth a new, ultimately expendable character. And then comes the end, when everyone dies and we all have a terrible ever after.
So what should the show do? The easy answer is to pare down the cast. Find a setting that anchors the show beyond a gimmick. Write characters that serve as more than shock value. For fuck’s sake, give the talented leading women something interesting to do. And, no, that doesn’t mean giving them two heads.