When it debuted in 2011, the most profound thing about FX’s American Horror Story wasn’t its blend of psycho-sexual horror, rather its ability to make the kitchen sink route work, throwing as many horror plots and nods out there as they can and still bringing it all together nicely.
This ambitious approach worked really well for showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuck for a while, giving us two stellar seasons of the anthology series: Murder House and Asylum.
But after a lackluster third season, Coven, and the first three episodes of the hotly anticipated fourth season, Freakshow, in the bag, the major flaw of the series’ design is starting to show. Simply put, diminishing returns are catching up fast.
Freakshow takes us to Jupiter, FL, circa 1952, as conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in a dual role) are forced to join one of the last remaining freakshows in the country after they are implicated in some suspicious criminal activity. Run by Mistress Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), a limelight-hungry German ex-pat, the community houses such mistreated “freaks” such as Jimmy, the Lobster Boy (Evan Peters), Ethel, the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates, sporting the most confounding accent this side of Baltimore) and Meep the Geek, who makes his living biting the heads off chickens.
Things quickly go from crazy to mental breakdown with the arrival of strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis), whose history with Ethel and ambitions to assume control of the show over Elsa cause sparks to fly. Not only that, the Jupiter police are dead set on punishing the freaks, while a shifty conman and his assistant (Dennis O’Hare and Emma Roberts) are plotting on getting their hands on the twins for reasons that might be described as museum related.
Lest we forget, there is also a murder clown making the rounds in the Jupiter area doing exactly what you would expect murder clowns to do.
This synopsis is only referring to the first three episodes and only covers about half of the story arcs already established.
It’s a lot to keep track of, and while there will always be plotlines that are more interesting than others, everything this season just feels like the air has been let out. There’s no shortage of great visuals going on, with Paulson’s performance as Bette and Dot providing a fascinating look at acting, while Twisty the Clown Killer is every bit as terrifying as people may lead you to believe.
And yet, the show hasn’t yet tapped back into that magic that kept you tuning back in, week after week. Characters, despicable as they usually are in this show, haven’t shown the type of charisma that past years have, with the mute clown assuming the role of most intriguing character over the usually terrific Lange, who is saddled here with her least interesting role on the show to date.
AHS certainly isn’t known for pulling its pieces together early on (mystery, people) but the current plotlines they have going don’t seem to demand any continued investment. Here we go with another love triangle, only this time it’s with the conjoined twins, the lobster boy and the faux fortune teller (sounds awesome on paper, we’ll see how it goes on film). Meanwhile the strongman is a jerk because he’s impotent, because sympathy. Even the appearance of a ghostly freak legend (Wes Bentley) on Halloween hasn’t reached its potential thanks to him being overly conversational.
Part of the problem early on might be the fact that each early episode runs upwards of an hour, as opposed to the standard 43 minutes, without much justification. If there was an abundance of cool things going on, this would be awesome; as is, it just feels like we’re getting less for more.
[At least part of this problem could be solved if someone just sat Ryan Murphy down and screamed into his face that “THIS IS NOT GLEE.” Every episode thus far this season has featured a hackneyed musical number, owing to the fact that somehow this freak show is focused around singing. This was a cute, inventive turn that one time they used it in Asylum; it then became questionable when they kept bringing in Stevie Nicks in Coven; now the tired gimmick needs to be retired. Forever.]
Freakshow still has plenty of time to pick itself up, starting with this week’s concluding chapter to the annual Halloween episode, so who knows, maybe this season can pull off the hat trick and get back to greatness. But just going by these first few episodes, it simply looks like they’ve hit that point with all great TV shows and are running on a definite lack of steam.