The moment the American Horror Story season 4 circus/freak show rumor started circulating, it was obvious; it’d be a genius new setting for the series. The show isn’t really known for its sound storylines, but if you let loose and embrace its dedication to going bigger than big, taking eccentric characters and throwing them into wildly bizarre situations, it’s an endlessly entertaining watch. If Murder House, Asylum and Coven were too much for you, you’d better change the channel, cancel your DVR recording or delete the digital copy immediately. But, if you dug the first three seasons and have your fingers crossed for even more over-the-top behavior, deeply disturbing scenarios and highly unusual characters, you’ll likely get your wish because based on the premiere episode, it looks as though American Horror Story: Freak Show is going to exceed all hopes and expectations.
Hit the jump for my American Horror Story: Freak Show recap.
The first episode of the new season, “Monsters Among Us,” begins with Sarah Paulson. We know she’s playing conjoined twins, but for a moment, we’ve only got one and she’s not particularly happy about whatever it is she’s walking into. But before we get to any of that, the episode takes us back to where this woman came from, a quaint farmhouse. After finding a gruesome crime scene, the milkman then makes yet another shocking discovery in the home. But rather than just come right out and show the audience what it is, we just get a series of gasps and shots that are framed to hide whatever everyone’s gawking at. If you’ve read even a single article about Freak Show, odds are, you were well aware of what was behind that curtain, but thanks to this methodical build, the first glimpse of Bette and Dot serves as an effective reveal.
Almost immediately after, we get a taste of one of the new neat camera tricks the series is going to put to use, and probably to excess – two different points of view for Paulson, one for Bette and one for Dot, and sometimes we’ll get them in a split screen format. So far, the technique is nearly seamless. It works well when the split screen’s got Bette’s view on one side and Dot’s on the other, but when one side has, let’s say, Bette’s POV and the other is a single on Bette, that can be a bit disorienting. Regardless, the pair is dynamic, fascinating and quite the CG achievement, and Paulson is bound to accomplish quite a bit with all of it.
So Bette and Dot are plucked from the murder scene, brought to a local hospital and that’s where Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars finds them. Her freak show, Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, recently moved to Jupiter, Florida in hopes of attracting some new clientele, but things aren’t really working out and the locals hate them. However, with the discovery of Bette and Dot, she thinks she can turn things around.
The moment we get our first glimpse at what Elsa has built, it’s abundantly clear that a freak show was the right way to go this season. There are some brief scenes with Evan Peters’ Jimmy Darling, “Lobster Boy,” and another moment with Jyoti Amge’s Ma Petite, but the show hits a whole new level when we actually get to go inside the tent with Bette and Dot and meet everybody.
There’s just no way you can take it all in at once – the vibrant colors, the amusement park rides, all of the different characters, their talents, their more unique qualities, their personalities and more. There’s something special about everyone and it’ll have you looking every which way, frantically trying to take it all in. And even beyond the striking main characters like Paulson’s Bette and Dot, Peter’s Jimmy and Kathy Bates’ Ethel Darling, we’ve also got a number of supporting players who make an equal, if not more indelible impression.
The two standouts are Jimmy’s sidekicks, Erika Ervin’s Amazon Eve and Mat Fraser’s Paul the Illustrated Seal. The trio caught my eye that very first time we saw that image of them standing side-by-side and, sure enough, they make quite the team in the first episode. Jimmy’s got a major attitude and will take some getting used to, and it seems as though his connection with Eve and Paul might manage to do just that. It’s also worth noting that Fraser’s got one heck of an on-screen presence. He doesn’t even have all that much dialogue this time around, but when he does speak, you’re completely taken by his warmth and authenticity.
Clearly I’m saving the best for last. Let’s talk Twisty. After everything American Horror Story has aired at this point, it’s a wonder I find anything shocking anymore, but boy are the Twisty killings brutal, especially that first one. This is a superbly nightmarish villain we’ve got here. He’s downright terrifying yet, at the same time, you can’t look away either. Hats off to the costume designer and make-up effects team because this is a stunning looking character. His outfit is disgusting, there’s clearly something very wrong with his scalp and the mouth alone is enough to give you nightmares.
Creating a creepy looking character is one thing; creating one that’s frightening to the core is completely different, and thanks to Twisty’s look, John Carroll Lynch’s physical performance and his behavior, Freak Show absolutely nails it. In reality, if a clown that looked like that walked up to me out in the middle of nowhere, I wouldn’t give his tricks the time of day, but there’s still no denying that having an evil clown do some tricks and then stab his victim to death makes for some great TV.
But then the show takes it not one, but two steps further. Twisty isn’t just a killer clown running around town like a madman trying to rack up victims. He’s got a home of sorts and he likes to keep select targets in it. Twisty’s clearly crazy to the core, but when he’s performing for the poor souls locked up in his makeshift prison, Twisty does evoke the slightest hint that he genuinely wants to entertain them. Then, later on, when the freak show performers are chopping up the dead cop, we get a glimpse of Twisty. On the one hand, he’s already been labeled the show villain, so he’s got to want to kill the freaks at some point, right? But, then again, the context of this shot also makes me think, is Twisty looking at the freaks as his equal at this moment? Perhaps someone he can connect to? That’s something that could be especially interesting to tap into.
“Monsters Among Us” boasts an enormous list of characters, scenarios and settings with all the potential in the world, proving that a freak show really was the best way to go with season 4. We got a 63-minute long first episode, but I already can’t get enough. It’s a good thing we’ve still 12 more to go.
Episode Rating: A-
- Bette and Dot each have their own set of organs although the doctor notes that one has two kidneys and the other has just one. Could that come into play at some point? And possibly their shared circulatory and reproductive systems as well?
- How stunning are those opening credits?
- Bette and Dot can communicate telepathically – and I actually buy it.
- If only I had the nerve to say, “Oh, darling. It’s on the house. Stars never pay,” to get out of paying for my diner tabs.
- Looks like Dot’s got a little crush on Jimmy. Could be interesting to see her pursue that after that uncomfortable sex ed talk with Elsa at the hospital.
- What’s that accent Bates has going on?
- Finn Wittrock’s Dandy is a pretty despicable spoiled brat, but there’s something alluring about him.
- Elsa’s rendition of “Life On Mars” is no “Name Game,” but it works.
- Terrific Twisty Shots: The wide shot of Twisty approaching the young woman, Twisty running directly at the camera as he’s pursuing her, and the one of him hanging out on the carousel.