Circus, Circus: The Great ‘Freak Show’

What’s freakier than a traveling circus of self-proclaimed freaks? The seemingly “normal” people you interact with every day –– your neighbors, your milkman, your doctor — who do their best to hide their inner freaks. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have returned with the fourth season of their anthological hit series, “American Horror Story” with a story inspired by two of mankind’s biggest fears of all time: circus freak shows and clowns.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” takes place in 1952 Jupiter, Florida, a time when television sets have landed in American living rooms everywhere, replacing other forms of entertainment — like freak shows. The cast, of course, includes some familiar faces from seasons past. Desperate to keep her business going, local freak show ringleader Elsa Mars (played by Oscar/Emmy award-winner, Jessica Lange) recruits conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) to her diverse troupe, which consists of characters like bearded lady, Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) and her son, Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) whose hands are affected by syndactyly.

Murphy and Falchuk have always impressed in assembling a formidable ensemble cast each season and “Freak Show” boasts probably the best one yet. Fan-favorite returners Paulson and Peters are forceful presences as their respectful characters and newcomers like “The Shield’s” Michael Chiklis, as strongman Dell Toledo are equally assertive on-screen.

Also even though, it’s a cliché to praise this aspect in “AHS,” Jessica Lange is once again supremely magnetic as Elsa Mars.  Her devious tone imposes a strong sense of authority over her performers and best of all, lends an enchanting singing voice for the theatricality of the troupe’s performances.

However, some of the most notable performances in the season so far come from the lesser-known members of the cast. Murphy and Falchuk made the best possible promotional move by not only casting disabled actors to play characters with the same disabilities, but also by giving them their own bio short films, which the American Horror Story Facebook page released regularly leading up to the season premiere.

These shorts, if anything, highlight actors like Mat Fraser — who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal and is diagnosed with phocomelia of both arms — giving them job opportunities that they normally can’t find due to their conditions. Another actress in the spotlight is the adorable Jyoti Amge, who portrays Ma Petite and in real life is the reported world’s smallest woman in the Guinness Book of Records.

Regardless of the overall critique one can make for each season of “AHS,” you can rarely argue with how sublime the production values are. The 50s setting is captured briskly with bright, sun-shined exterior settings, which contrast nicely with the darker interiors. Furthermore, the show’s trademark stylized filming is at its best during the dazzling circus tent performances.

It isn’t often where you see elements of Ryan Murphy’s previous shows crossover into “AHS,” but in “Freak Show” he does something that not many viewers would imagine he’d do: musical performances. It was one of several aspects that annoyed the hell out of us in his dreadful series, “Glee,” but here he uses song covers in a much better fashion. Even for how anachronistic the song choices are (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” to name a few), they are smartly incorporated as theatrical acts that function as metaphors for either a character or progression in the plot.

During the first three episodes, a lot of psychological tension is established between several members of the troupe, specifically Elsa pushing back the law from shutting down her land lease, in addition to Dell’s animosity towards pretty much anyone he talks to.

The creepiest moments of “Freak Show” though, come largely from the serial killer, Twisty the Clown, played marvelously by John Carroll Lynch. The make-up of his face alone is enough to make a child lose a few nights of sleep and his slow, yet steady process of picking off his next victim is chilling at times.

It also helps that Lynch has past acting experience playing a killer. The actor played Arthur Leigh Allen in “Zodiac,” the man thought to have been the primary suspect in the infamous real-life Zodiac Killer case — which still remains unsolved to this day.

Boasting large numbers of chicken heads, a woman with three breasts and happy dreams of surgical operations, “Freak Show” gets weirder with every coming episode — but it wouldn’t be an “American Horror Story” otherwise. And with the promise of some memorable guest stars to come in future episodes, “Freak Show” has potential to be the most vigorous season yet.

 

RECOMMENDED: “Freak Show” shows “American Horror Story” at its finest since Season One.