After months of speculation, fan-made promos, teasers, and hauntingly beautiful official promos, we’re finally met with the premiere of the fourth season of the anthology juggernaut, American Horror Story, this year in the Freak Show.
If it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of this show. But because of that, I hold it to a very high standard. First season was excellent. Smart, well-filmed, challenging, and stylized. Second season started to lose me in the near-mess of horror tropes thrown at the audience. But it regained my trust in the final few episodes, which, while to some fell a too-rapid shift in tone, for me it brought together the themes the season played upon in an elegant and subtle way. The aliens were stand ins for divinity and the achievements of science, the asylum stood as a sad pinnacle of religious corruption and our lack of progress at the time. Together, binaries were fuzed and meshed and reversed and the entire season came off a huge artistic success.
Then, of course, season three hit. True to form for third-season-ruts (see: Supernatural), Ryan Murphy and co. decided to lighten the show’s tone after Coven, which I was fine with. The shots were still beautiful. The eeriness blended well with the synth-heavy musical score, given a fresh, modern feel on the witches genre. It worked. Until it didn’t. The first episode gave us a taste of what could have been to come: female empowerment, reversal of race issues, sexuality (as always), the struggle against mortality. It was trimmed down from Asylum, sleek… and then it just stopped. Halfway through, the season became witches being bitches, and the race dialogue was lost in throwing away our black characters because the plot ran out. It tried to pull an Asylum and save it in the final episode, but the big themes were pushed aside. Literally, too little, too late.
Now, I know, some were fans, and some were not. Indeed, that’s my first point going into this review of Freak Show today. Horror is a tricky genre because everyone approaches horror with different tastes and expectations. What scares one person won’t phase another. Some want to simply be scared and entertained. Some want to be intellectually challenged.
So before going into Freak Show, I want to set my expectations of the show. After seeing how smart a show it could be from the moment I hit first season, and the moment Asylum floored me, I knew this show was brilliant. The very premise, even, that in the horror genre, yes there are frightening monsters, but the most frightening issues are the societal ones. Boom. That’s it. There’s our one-sentence show pitch.
But along the way, AHS picked up some brilliant cinematography and editing. The show is a breath of fresh air compared to much of television in its uniqueness of style. The acting was great, with Jessica Lange perennially stealing the show. And the scares, well, like I said, everyone has different triggers. But compared against most of TV? It’s happily in the horror genre.
SO: Freak Show.
If my rambling prologue there wasn’t indication enough, the first episode is usually strong. The show has history with getting rough as it gets going. So the first episode review should only be taken as far as you can throw it.
That said, I mostly totally dug it.
The cinematography was still gorgeous. I love the wide angle shots that have become staples. And the twilight carnival shots with the lights… well that hits me right in the feel goods. That’s my sandbox right there.
The acting, of course, is always exciting to see how the actors mold to new characters, and it was done well. Good to see Jessica Lange staying steady as the manipulative matriarch with some well-buried brokenness.
He’s probably the scariest clown I’ve ever seen. I’m not scared of clowns, myself, so perhaps some folks would disagree, but he’s creepy as hell. Perhaps overdone? But dirty, dark, gritty, murderous, and with secrets yet to be revealed, I like it.
I thought it was a curious decision, but one that I wound up liking, to reveal Twisty first in daylight. It seems to me that this speaks to the team’s confidence in their creation sustaining scares no matter what the time of day. It worked for me. The creepy Louisiana (okay, “Florida”) wilderness tied to a violent illustration of just how dark humanity can be was very reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective, which I was very okay with. In the end, yes, the folks who don’t like clowns aren’t gonna like Twisty, and he’s dark enough that he could literally scare some away, but I’ve never gotten the impression AHS cares too much.
The real heart of the show though is the themes. And AHS has seemed to strip this season down to, literally, just freaks. What makes someone a freak. What physical deformity means socially. How freaky are human beings in general. What’s the appropriate response to social marginalism.
Of course, some won’t have it. Some will. And likely there’s gray space in between where the show is actually operating. I watched headlines before the premiere about what a terrible show it is to exploit the disabled as horrific. I just read a Buzzfeed article about how AHS isn’t as progressive as we think. And it goes on.
For the ones who won’t have it: AHS, as I said above, is about reversing many illustrations of what’s monstrous. There’s always extremes (usually the big bad murderer) for the scares, but the heart is in reframing what should be scary. If it fails, a la Coven, and winds up reinforcing these social issues, then yeah, it should be held to that. But I think the intentions are here, it’s a matter of the skills of the writers, and so far, given the pilot episode, we have a lot to work with. The deformities are played upon, but that’s of course the AHS style. It’s always right in your face.
Ariane Lange’s Buzzfeed piece was accurate. If AHS is as progressive as we think/want, it needs to do more than normalize the inner human of the disabled, and instead examine them as abnormal, but abnormal because of society’s treatment and their experiences due to that treatment and to the disability.
To which I say, A) give it a chance. we still have 12 episodes yet to see if Murphy and co. will move beyond the “they’re just people too” theme. But also… B) I think it’s already going beyond that. If we want to examine the true ways that “freaks” are abnormal, which is to say, who they’ve become because of marginalization and efforts in a world that doesn’t provide for them, then this is an excellent space for it. Right off the bat, we have two murders by the “freaks” (three more if you count Twisty), and an instant questioning of where those murders fall on the morality line. I think that by reframing “freaks” as “normal” so quickly that we can jump right into looking at the moral nuances that their situation provides, AHS is already being relatively progressive. I very much don’t expect to find the conclusion of the season being that freaks are freaks and normal people are normal.
We’re not in AHS’s sandbox until we’re questioning everyone and watching the plot unravel because American culture is really, really good at being freakish and horrific. That will again and again be the attempt of the theme of this show.
Now, of course I’m worried that there’s not going to be enough to chew on to stretch this out for a season. Already in episode one we’ve had emphasis on society’s sad treatment of the “freaks”, we’ve had illustrations of their experiences and humanity, and we’ve got the classic AHS plays on what’s freaky, what’s justified freaky, what’s extreme freaky, what’s human, and how much of the horror is in our nature.
All those things I want to see twisted and reversed and changed and explored further, but I worry it’ll be tired by January.
But also, I hope. I hope that with all that time, Murphy and Co. will address those issues that Lange points out, and progress a good, dark, Asylum-level dark (but smart) story.
That’s one that time will tell. But there’s more than enough here at the start to keep me on board and happy… even if they always start that way.
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team. He’s the author of Hallowtide, and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He contributes to the TAPS Paramagazine, leads the weekend ghost hunts and the Stanley Hotel, and shoots conceptual and portrait photography in Colorado. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com