American Horror Story is a show that prides itself on its ability to reinvent itself each season. When it debuted back in 2011, American Horror Story could do nothing but surprise. The first season threw everything from ghosts, mass murderers, demonic babies and rubber fetish suits at audiences and since then each subsequent season has had to top the previous one when it came to supernatural weirdness.
While Freak Show is undoubtedly the series weirdest effort yet, it’s far from its best. It lacks the dramatic suburban punch of Murder House, the grandiose chaos and terror of Asylum and the quirky hijinks and manipulations of Coven. What is does present audiences with is a series that’s flavored by its passion for the bizarre and the grotesque – a quality that manifests in the series structure, writing, set design, casting and (evocative) imagery.
Set in the sleepy Florida hamlet of Jupiter circa 1952, Freak Show follows the charismatic Elsa Mars’ (Jessica Lange) and the inhabitants of her ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – who both face scrutiny and persecution from local townsfolk after a murderous clown begins terrorizing the town. At least, that’s the shape of things at the front-end of the season. As with Coven, things quickly escalate and the stakes change frequently – though unlike previous seasons, Freak Show is less concerned with exploring the history of a place, and more with the histories of its cast.
As with any season of the show, the performances are a mixed bag – though none are truly forgettable. While Sarah Paulson’s two-headed woman is genuinely fascinating to watch, her dialogue does occasionally come off a little bit dry and cliche. Disappointingly, Coven-standouts Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett (along with Evan Peter’s Jimmy) end up being some of the weak points in the cast while series’ antagonists Dandy (Finn Wittrock) and Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) steal the show. Wes Bentley and Neil Patrick Harris also make great additions as guest stars for the season’s two-parter episodes.
Freak Show is also the first American Horror Story with direct ties to previous seasons. While this is certainly something worth talking about, it also leads to the series relying on this gimmick over building anything substantial out of its own narrative – it also cements Freak Show as a season of American Horror Story that’s much stronger in design than it is in execution. It’s very interested in expanding on the stylistic and narrative ideas used in previous seasons rather than bringing it’s own to the table.
Freak Show is a very interesting show to watch, but it’s nowhere near as fun or creative as its predecessors. It almost feels like the show is reaching the paradoxical limitations of its own anthology-formula. Freak Show is a fun diversion but I hope next year brings a more worthwhile reinvention of the series to the fore.