TV Feature: Why Freak Show Is The Best American Horror Story Yet

To claim American Horror Story's fourth outing Freak Show is getting a bad rap would be pretty unjust. The brainchild of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk is still thriving well past the half-way point of the season with all the gore, shocks, melodrama, and campy music numbers a boy could dream of. However, I've recently noticed discontent brewing regarding Murphy's former critical darling - in the form of articles from both indie blogs and prestigious news outlets (The Hollywood Reporter, Washington Post) claiming Murphy's anthology series is growing 'out of control', becoming 'generic' and 'slow-paced and obvious'. As someone whose televisual highlight of the week is without a doubt, American Horror Story: Freak Show, I felt compelled to chuck in my two cents and gush over why I think this is a series at its peak.

Perhaps it is not as bleak as The Walking Dead, nor as sexually-charged as the recently-departed True Blood, but Freak Show satisfies my craving for outrageously fantastical dream-like Gothic horror that made me a genre fan in the first place. Like so many of the strongest horror films of the fifties and sixties, Freak Show combines bold character-driven melodrama with psychological chills, joyous Hollywood excess and camp, stomach-churning gore, a deep underlying melancholy, and a brooding Gothic madness. The end result feels like a nostalgic trip back to a time when the 'horror of the personality' was at the forefront of the genre - where both psychological and physical monsters were usually representative as a thinly veiled attack on middle class superiority and the dark 'other' (potentially lurking inside each of us) that could snatch that comfort from underneath our feet. This essence, previously found in the likes of Psycho, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, Strait-Jacket, Berserk!, Lady in a Cage, Targets, and Games, is alive and well - and is living at Elsa Mars's freak show in Jupiter, Florida.

Freak Show presents a narrative that may not be bound by the conventional structure of these aforementioned sixties features - but is subsequently chock-full of genre-treats thanks to its twisting and turning narrative patterns. In doing so the scope of the series feels wider - exploring the darkened back-stories of its players - from Jessica Lange's Elsa's harrowing days as a dominatrix in Weimar Republic Germany to Twisty the tormented clown's completely heartbreaking origins. This results in a series with its most prominent emotional backbone thus far, and subsequently lays the ground for its strongest acting yet.

Much of the criticism that I keep finding myself reading centres on the familiarity - much of which is centred around Lange's strong female protagonist Elsa Mars. Murphy excels at writing powerful  female characters whether it be NeNe Leakes and Ellen Barkin dominating the screen in short-lived NBC comedy The New Normal or Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett gripping us in the AHS saga. I've read that several reviewers are sick of seeing Lange as the icy, desperate vamp clinging to her fading glamour in each season - which might not be such a bad argument. However, with each season, Lange and Murphy pack continual surprises in each character - keeping her continued appearances fresh and fantastically exciting. This time as the Marlene Dietrich-inspired would-be star there is many an underlying weakness lurking in Elsa - but it is watching her play these titanic characters attempting to suppress any flaws that continually makes for such an engrossing protagonist - whether it be Murder House's medling Southern Belle, Asylum's overpowering Sister Jude,  or Coven's fading Supreme. Lange has that classically rare air of natural grace and power that we see Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, and Simone Signoret execute in these classic 'horror of the personality' films and contributes an invaluable amount to the continual charm of the series through this.

The freak show setting is also proving to be one of the series most engrossing set-ups so far. As an environment it straddles a line between the darkest recesses of reality and an unearthly supernatural world, serving as the perfect canvas for both character-driven tales of woe and horror to unfold - as well as an unsettlingly lurid landscape for the supernatural to creep in. Gripping human drama comes in numerous forms from: the inner secrets of Michael Chiklis' violent strong-man as he battles with his sexuality, Bearded Lady Ethel Darling (a wonderfully accented Kathy Bates) tackling health problems, and Francis Conroy's overbearing maternal figure being crushed under the continual pressure to cover up psychopathic son Dandy's crimes. There's also Machiavellian fun to be had in Denis O'Hare's twisted conman intent on harvesting the body-parts of the world's most exotic freaks - whilst Patti LaBelle's gutsy maid has been a comic joy to watch. However, this is American Horror Story after all and Freak Show has presented a twisted playground full of the supernatural and downright horrifying human evil - from Wes Bentley's two-faced aristocrat Edward Mordrake (complete with a luminous green fog) come to harvest souls, to Twisty's caged prisoners, and Dandy's Cruising-esque murder sequence which laid guest star Matt Bomer to rest . These scenes of gore, shocks, and pure nastiness are all backed up and justified through Murphy's rich character-driven narrative - making every death or moment of peril a near-earth-shattering moment for fans of the show (for example, just remember your reaction to the adorable Jyote Amge's Ma Petite almost being poisoned in the glass jar). The result is a series that is intelligent, unsettling, poignant, and both visually and thematically rich.

It would appear that the casual viewer is more offended by the musical numbers most of all - citing Murphy's background on Glee as clouding his judgement. However, I can only disagree with this criticism. The freak show is carnivalesque, it is lurid, a joyous celebration of the twisted, weird and wonderful. It is the perfect environment to feature musical performances - why not combine good old fashioned horror with the musical? It worked for Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Lange's Dietrich inspired take on Bowie's Life on Mars and Lana Del Rey's Gods and Monsters have been unstoppable tour de forces of atmospheric camp - both real series highpoints. Sarah Paulson tacking Fiona Apple's Criminal was a pleasant surprise, and I'm sure someone out there was enjoying Evan Peters' take on that Nirvana track. These numbers are perfectly fitting with the garish brightness and carnivalesque chaos of Freak Show - bringing a nostalgic Baby Jane-esque faux Hollywood glamour to the fold.

We still have several episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show left to relish, but if the series stays as fantastically entertaining as it has been - then it is likely to claim Asylum's title as the highpoint of the show's run. 

Andrew McArthur

Originally featured on The People's Movies.
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