What went wrong – so very wrong – with American Horror Story: Freak Show?
The Ryan Murphy-produced (and often directed) anthology series started promisingly four years ago with its unexpected and critically praised hit in the Murder House outing. The setup was ideal – each week explored various murders that tainted a Los Angeles haunted house – and carried the show through to its logical conclusion, bringing the family back together again… even if in death. It was a tight, scary series filled with sex and TV-level gore, and it helped reintroduce modern viewers to the beauty and clarity in a contained anthology series.
Asylum followed it and, for my money, it’s the most ambitious and thematically rich series thus far. It’s also the best-acted season overall with stars Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Zachary Quinto, James Cromwell (Emmy winner) and Lily Rabe all giving brilliant performances. Last year’s Coven is the most popular season yet, but, aside from Kathy Bates’ transformative performance (also an Emmy winner), it felt flatter, less fulfilling (too Supreme obsessed) as an overall series.
That leaves us with Freak Show, a carnival-based season that, on paper, seemed tailor-made for the AHS brand. The opening credits sequence established the proper mood with its stop-motion animated oddities straight out of Tim Burton’s nightmares.
And the pilot, “Monsters Among Us,” started things off on a strong note. The German freak show owner Elsa Mars seemed a perfect fit for Lange’s talents (the role was jointly conceived by Murphy and Lange), and Paulson’s conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler seemed to promise an amazing Paulson performance – one that would perhaps finally win her the Emmy she has so richly deserved since Asylum.
Then, there’s the clown. Although he was never named on the show, we’ve come to know him as Twisty the Murdering Clown (John Carroll Lynch), a gruesome freak of a clown with a missing jaw and a nasty homicidal streak. I’m still full of dread remembering his first appearance, dancing manically in the daylight in front of unsuspecting teen lovers. The scene recalled David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac in its depiction of unsettling horror in broad daylight.
Good stuff, right?
But things deteriorated dramatically after that and hopes for a late-breaking resurrection in the season finale were quickly dashed. After haphazardly resolving plot lines surrounding the freaks, the series ends by supposing that Elsa Mars becomes a celebrated variety show star with three Emmys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – all of this for a character who was booed off the freak show stage for a boring rendition of “Life on Mars,” a reprise of which we were mercifully spared at the end of the season.
So where did Murphy and cast go so wrong so quickly? A few thoughts…
I Like My Freaks Sympathetic
AHS has always been an ensemble piece. Sure, there are focus points of each season (originally Connie Britton and Dylan McDermitt in Murder House but primarily Lange in subsequent seasons), but Murphy and his writers tended to spread the opportunities amongst its cast. In fact, it was a wonder that, given the size of each cast, the creators were able to carve off a something special for each actor. Most of the characters felt well drawn and complimented the central story – something of a horror Robert Altman piece.
But off the bat with Freak Show, you feel suffocated by freaks. Ill-defined freaks. Freaks popped out from every tent corner and trailer with only a line or two of dialogue and then disappeared into the background. Sure, the setting sounded great and full of limitless possibilities, but, at the end of the day, who did we really care about?
All great horror has to have someone with which the audience can sympathize. Someone to root for. Someone we can slightly relate to if not outright see ourselves in. Murder House had Vivien (Connie Britton). Asylum had Kit (Evan Peters). Coven had Cordelia (Paulson) and, to a certain extent, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga). The only character in Freak Show to elicit even a sliver of audience compassion was probably Ma Petite, the miniscule Indian woman who was unceremoniously strangled by strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis) and stuffed in a jar.
No one seemed to have justifications for their evil actions. They were just largely evil at the core. I suspect Murphy’s intent was to illustrate the social injustices that led the characters to commit their variety of atrocities – refusal of service at a lunch counter and the heavy homosexual (sub)text are there for a reason – but the connections weren’t fully realized. Just as soon as Murphy grasped onto some tiny thread of an idea, it was off to another shiny object. Most likely Elsa Mars’ shiny turbans.
When the bodies started stacking up (murders happen early and often in AHS), there was little audience remorse (save for Ma Petite) as Murphy failed to make emotional connections between his audience and his freaks. Given the way many of them met their end in the season finale, chances are no one else cared for them either. They were just there for the show, after all.
And, honestly, I’m not even sure what Angela Bassett was doing in the show, three tits and all.
Dandy. Just… Dandy.
It’s well documented that actor Finn Wittrock was only supposed to appear in a handful of episodes as Dandy Mott, a wealthy and epically spoiled manchild obsessed with freaks. Something happened along the way, though, and the series became ALL ABOUT DANDY.
Sure, Dandy was fine for a few laughs – particularly throw-away gags like the baby bottle filled with bourbon and the petulant child rivalry with maid Dora (Patti LaBelle). But Murphy turned Dandy into a serial killer, initially pairing him with Twisty and then graduating him to a solo murderer, thereby making him the star of the show.
We were subject hours of psychotic rants and tantrums, balanced only by his mother Gloria (Frances Conroy). Their seesaw of a relationship gave Dandy purpose and gave his storyline real tension. How far would she go to ignore his actions or to cover his tracks? Unfortunately, Murphy tired of that tension, and Gloria was quickly killed by her own son, leaving Dandy an annoyingly unchecked presence in the show.
And then there were the long, lingering shots of Dandy working out in tighty whities and, later, caressing his oiled-up abs. These scenes coupled with strongman Dell’s latent homosexuality, gay Stanley’s freakishly large member, and Dandy’s brutal murder of hustler Andy (Matt Bomer) make you wonder just what Murphy was trying to say. Was he equating 1950s-era homosexuals to the carnival freaks? Was it just something baked into that era akin to the closeted husband of Todd Haynes’ film Far From Heaven? Whatever it was, it went away fast. Given Murphy’s low attention span, it’s not a surprise.
But Dandy never elevated beyond an annoying, repulsive character. He was a nasty, cynical presence in the series that, given his screen time, changed the tone of the show. At his end, Dandy’s purpose in the series is all-too-obviously laid out: he’s the biggest freak of them all despite his “pretty boy” appearance. Trouble is, that’s no shock. Murphy laid that out in Episode 1.
Finally, the Capital Offense
A show called American Horror Story should be one thing above all else. You can have all the stylized camerawork, the intricate set design, and the broad, hammy (and fun) performances. You have to make the show scary. Freak Show failed to do that.
At the start, I was terrified by Twisty the Clown, but Murphy humanized him and wanted the audience to pity him. We were treated to a sympathetic backstory that watered down his impact, and then he was quickly dispatched in a bizarre plot line about a circus freak ghost who claims freaks that perform on Halloween night. This story is repeated in the season finale only as a plot device to quickly wrap up this horror show.
The remaining characters were so mired in heavily plotted melodrama that there was little room for scares. The terror has to grow organically from character interaction, not plot mechanics. AHS became more interested in celebrating oddities than in terrifying its audience, committing the ultimate sin: boredom.
At its end, Freak Show is just another Ryan Murphy fever dream obsessing over amazing cinematography / set design and over the faded glory of its star, Jessica Lange. He even managed to find a way to Glee it up with anachronistic songs performed by the cast – all for sale on iTunes, by the way.
There are already rumors that AHS will “radically reinvent” itself in hopes to keep star Jessica Lange for its fifth season. To me, a radical reinvention is needed, but perhaps not the radical reinvention the creators intend.
How about Murphy write the series from beginning to end, clearly identify the main cast up front, logically plot the action, and wrap it up after carrying a theme from beginning to end?
That would be the most radically frightening turn of events he could provide.