October 14, 2014

American Horror Story gets its freak on in new season

American Horror Story (AHS) is a show that it is easy to root for. It’s a pulpy, genre-minded show in an era of sometimes excessively high-minded programming. It was at the forefront of the anthology TV format three years before HBO’s True Detective (which will, much to my chagrin, likely get credit for popularizing the concept). And it has a real dedication to one of the most under-represented genres on television: horror, as you may have guessed.

The rollercoaster AHS takes the viewer on is relentless. Each new scene might bring an unwelcome turn of plot or a would-be-dramatic moment that falls flat. But almost every episode is good for at least a few truly scary moments, and, every once in a while, a genuine stroke of genius in writing or cinematography. All throughout you can expect gorgeous production value and well-realized characters played by a reliable cast of TV stalwarts.

FX’s latest incarnation of the series, Freak Show, takes the viewer to 1950s Jupiter, Florida, where German expat Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) runs a financially struggling carnival that features a number of the so-called “freaks.” Mars hopes to reestablish the carnival’s viability with the introduction of a new main attraction: Siamese twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), who are on the run from the law after the murder of their mother. Meanwhile, a psychotic clown (John Carroll Lynch) is on the loose in Jupiter, killing and kidnapping its residents at an alarming rate.

Freak Show does no favors to the already slim hopes of rehabbing the clown’s image in the current pop cultural consciousness. Clean, normal—looking clowns are already creepy enough, but the show refuses it even that veneer. With its dirty and faded outfit and make up, this clown has the appearance of a deranged homeless man doing his best It impression. His silence and threatening set of prosthetic teeth complete the almost comically disturbing visage. It strains credulity that any of his victims would do anything other than run at the first sight of him, but horror has long rested on the stupidity of its cast, and such things must be forgiven.

Aside from demon clowns, the season premiere was fairly light on scares, opting instead to establish its cast and their various hopes and fears. American Horror Story has been consistently strong in this department, thanks in no small part to its talented recurring cast. Lange is a veteran of all four seasons and has walked away with two Emmys for her efforts. Evan Peters is another such veteran, and while he lacks Lange’s hardware, he has consistently been one of the emotional anchors of this cast. In Freak Show he plays a young man with deformed, claw-like hands who challenged Mars for leadership in the carnival.

Like any good horror story, the show has typically given significant time to the underlying mental and emotional states of the characters so as to better frame the actual scares. This episode spends far more time dealing with the dynamics of being societal outcasts than it does with the threat of killer clowns, and that’s a very good thing. But rest assured, that clown is still coming to get you.