Freak Show, the fourth iteration of FX’s American Horror Story anthology series, starts off sluggishly, behaving as if it didn’t get a suitable respite between seasons. It shows up to work Wednesday night staggering around without caffeine, half-heartedly plopping its tale this time in the worn-out milieu of the carnival sideshow. They’re all here: the bearded lady; the “Siamese” twins; the Lobster Boy with his strange hands.
Even the show’s once-eager repertory players go through the motions as if they’re punching a time clock (whether using hands or stumps), chief among them Jessica Lange, who won Emmys for seasons 1 and 3.
Lange, who has already indicated that this will be her last go-around with American Horror Story, is cast this time as Elsa Mars, the cruel-spirited German proprietress of a circus-tent freak show that has more or less permanently settled on a patch of swampy land outside Jupiter, Florida in 1952. All Lange has left to offer, it seems, is a Marlene Dietrich impression.
Last season — which became a point of parting between devoted and former American Horror Story fans — was about a coven of witches in modern-day New Orleans. A lighthearted feminist commentary seemed to run parallel to that chapter, as when one young witch caused a bus full of predatory fraternity members to crash, killing them all; which led another witch to go to the morgue to sew various frat-boy body parts back together in order to resurrect the boy she liked most (Evan Peters).
So now here we are, in Florida (itself a kind of American horror story), where Sarah Paulson, who always seems to draw the short end of the stick in these melodramas, plays conjoined twins Bette and Dot.
After the twins are suspected in the murder of their mother, Fraulein Elsa moves in and offers them refuge as the stars of her financially troubled freak show. And because this is American Horror Story, she immediately asks Bette and Dot about their shared genitalia and sexual desires. (It should be noted that the show has always been drawn to sexual violence and prurience, often to a perverted degree; it’s difficult to warn viewers of a crossed line when so many fans seem to watch the show in hopes of it.)
Peters also returns this season as the temperamental but possibly redeemable Jimmy Darling, the Lobster Boy, and he seems to be doing a riff on Johnny Depp’s titular role in John Waters’ Cry-Baby. Bates takes on the role of his mother, Ethel Darling, the Bearded Lady, by mostly over-exaggerating the Maryland o’s in the hirsute woman’s mid-Atlantic dialect. Both roles demonstrate that joining the American Horror Story company is more or less a crapshoot. Peters got a challenging role last season as the Frankenstein monster of the fraternity carnage; Bates got a part that allowed her to run away with several episodes of Coven.
To combat the creep of boredom, Freak Show has thoughtfully included a wandering, murderous clown guaranteed to give anyone a raging case of coulrophobia. He’s dirty and terrifying, straight out of the John Wayne Gacy paintings. He murders a couple and kidnaps their sleeping son; he approaches teenage lovers necking on a picnic blanket, murders the boy and kidnaps the girl.
Then, in the second episode, a delusional, wealthy mother (Conroy) hires this nightmare clown to entertain her spoiled-rotten son (Finn Wittrock) and, once more, American Horror Story reminds us that its true talents are mostly visual and suggestive. Good luck getting that clown out of your head as you turn in for the night.
American Horror Story: Freak Show debuts Wednesday at 7/10 p.m. on FX
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