Wednesday, October 8, 2014

REVIEW: 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' - Elsa Welcomes Bette and Dot Tattler to Her Show in 'Monsters Among Us'

FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show - Episode 4.01 "Monsters Among Us"

One of the only surviving sideshows in the country struggles to stay in business during the dawning era of television. When police make a terrifying discovery at a local farmhouse, the eccentric purveyor of the freak show sees an opportunity that will lead her troupe either to their salvation or ruin.

After the ridiculous hot mess that Coven ultimately turned out to be, I didn't quite know what to expect with American Horror Story: Freak Show - the fourth installment of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story franchise. They've reinvented themselves enough times now that the things that have been problematic continue to be issues despite the new narrative. And yet, each season pulls you back in because it is something different.

I actually really enjoyed "Monsters Among Us" as the start to another season of American Horror Story. It's well-structured and it seems like more thought has been put into the story this season. I like it because it's about something - the collective identity and makeshift family of the people society has deemed freaks. And yet, I'm not sure how it will play to the people who watch American Horror Story for the guilty pleasure campiness of it all. Coven was a mess narratively speaking. And yet, it was the highest rated season so far and it seemed like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett had a blast chewing scenery.

That heightened reality is always going to be present in whatever this series does. Look no further than any time the murderous clown appears on the screen in this opening episode. That's a plot thread that in no way feels connected to the actual story of this institution and yet is here because the series thinks of itself as a horror show - and a horror show must have people getting murdered constantly. There's other ways of embracing that genre but it's a trait that Murphy and company just enjoy hitting over and over again. But the show could have a killing clown running amuck in Jupiter, Florida, it would be an important story but it didn't then have to bleed over into the twists of the other characters. The show could deal with this murderous person but they could also unite this collection of people in interesting ways. Instead, however, both the Tattler conjoined sisters and Jimmy Darling murder people in the span of this premiere. That's what unites these people. It's completely played for shock value. And yet, it's not surprising because we've seen this formula from American Horror Story before. They had the opportunity to present something different and instead they had most of their characters continue to be narcissistic murderers.

I just wish they would cool it on all the murders because there is a solid foundation here. Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and Jessica Lange all are given great and unique performances. Paulson is more impressive on a technical level. It does somewhat read as the creative team giving her a role that will win her an Emmy - at least until the voters give it Lange out of redundancy. Bette and Dot are a bit too conventionally one-note for me - one is authoritative and level-headed while the other is more imaginative and naive. But there's a lot of room to go with these characters and that probably excites me more than anything else this season. And then, Peters is given more to do in this one episode than he do for the totality of Coven. That's just a simple fact. And he proves that when the creative team gives him something to do he can pull it off quite well. Again, don't care for his murderous side. But he is quite commanding in his desire to not be seen as a freak and live a normal life. With Lange, I had concerns that this role would be too similar to the archetypes she played on Asylum and Coven. She's the leader of this motley crew of "freaks" and is exploiting them for her own narcissistic gain. And yet, Lange infuses the character with heart. She is slowly realizing that this is the place that she truly belongs in and that is terrifying for her.

The premiere also wisely keeps the physical quality that identifies these people as different from the norm away from the audience in the first instance where we see them before than slowly showing us their full selves. When Paulson first appears on the screen, the camera only frames around one of her heads. Jimmy appears trying to pick up a waitress covering up his hands and it's not until later that we see what they truly are. But the biggest surprise reveal of all is the one with Elsa Mars. The entire 90-minute running time she appears as the normal one in this group. She makes herself the star of the show - and that was a pretty great musical sequence! And yet, she too is disfigured. Her legs have been cut off just below the knee. That reveal is wonderfully effective because it doesn't make it the sole focus for the character. She is a lot more than just that - even though society is only willing to look at that one thing.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Monsters Among Us" was written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk and directed by Ryan Murphy.
  • I just love Kathy Bates' accent this season. It's plain but really effective.
  • The characters played by Frances Conroy and Finn Wittrock felt shoe-horned into the narrative. The only purpose they served was in showing how unsuccessful this freak show is as well as strengthening the bonds of this family and its newest members.
  • What the heck was going on with the Grace Gummer nurse? That made no sense whatsoever.
  • Should we be reading into a person called Elsa Mars taking up residence in a place called Jupiter, Florida? That seems like a meaningful connection. Why? I have no clue. But why else would they do it?
  • The score was really overbearing at times. It took me out of the moment more than added to it.
  • Like every other season of this show, it could go flying off the rails at any given moment. I've come to accept that. And yet, I remain cautiously optimistic about this season.