Jessica Lange knows what time it is. In recent interviews, American Horror Story’s resident Emmy nominee/winner has gone on the record to say that the latest season, American Horror Story: Freak Show (which premiered last night on FX) will be her last. “[Freak Show] will be four years in a row,” Lange told Entertainment Weekly. “It might not have been the best decision. But I think four years doing something is a sufficient amount of time.”
Can't be mad at that. But perhaps, though she'd never say it, part of Lange realizes something the rest of her colleagues don't: American Horror Story needs a serious overhaul. And giving co-star Angela Bassett a third boob isn't cutting it.
There was a time when American Horror Story didn't need to go full Total Recall to get your attention. In its first two seasons, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s released episodes that whizzed by with an unruliness that, punctuated by chaotic music-video-style editing and bizarre camera angles, left you too dizzy to give a damn about the muddled plots and kitchen-sink overflow. Murphy, feeling confident from Glee’s success, audaciously blended his favorite horror tropes and influences, all with the sexual kinkiness he'd abandoned once Nip/Tuck went off the air in 2010. But then the fun stopped with Coven. Initially working racial and sexual politics into the kitschy world of cat-fighting witches, Murphy’s team gave up after the season’s halfway point. Sublime moments of inspiration, like Kathy Bates’ resurrected slave owner watching a President Obama speech on television with wide-eyed awe, went nowhere.
If he’d been wise, Murphy would’ve read Coven's scathing reviews, re-calibrated, and followed the new anthology model currently utilized by FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective, in which new seasons bring new stories with new actors. There’s only so much “evil queen” scenery-chewing Jessica Lange can do. Yet based on Freak Show’s first two episodes, Murphy doesn't agree.
Once again, Lange is the Head Woman in Charge, playing fallen German cabaret star Elsa Mars, who, in Florida circa 1952, runs a rural sideshow that’s clearly a riff on Tod Browning’s classic 1932 horror film Freaks. But with the advent of television, people don’t care about carny folk anymore, and Elsa’s business is struggling. She finds hope in conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (a two-for-one Sarah Paulson), the survivors of a home invasion that left their mother slaughtered on their farmhouse’s kitchen floor. Elsa sweet talks the sisters into joining her “Cabinet of Curiosities,” where they’re joined by Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters), famous for his long, twisty fingers, which he uses to privately finger-bang paying customers; Jimmy’s mother, Ethel (Kathy Bates), a bearded lady and Elsa’s righthand woman; “The Geek,” a young oddity who bites off the heads of little animals for show; the tiny-armed, heavily tattooed “Paul the Illustrated Seal” (Mat Fraser); and returning AHS staple Pepper (Naomi Grossman).
Pepper, specifically, stepped straight out of Browning’s Freaks:
In a few distinct ways, Freak Show is Coven: Part Deux. Elsa takes Bette and Dot under her wing but quickly realizes that Dot’s immaculate singing ability will render the former stage star’s own vocal chops obsolete, thus stealing her shine. Yes, it's pretty much the same as Lange and Paulson’s “younger figure usurping the O.G.” paradigm from Coven. Bates and Bassett are, déjà vu alert, rivals, since Bassett’s tri-breasted Desiree is married to Bates’ Ethel's ex, a disruptive strongman played by Michael Chiklis—meaning, they're rehashing Coven’s tit-for-tat feud between Delphine and Marie Laveau, albeit this time one's going three tits for tat. (Sorry.) The period setting is switched up, Paulson's pulling double duty, and Lange’s deploying a campy German accent, but otherwise American Horror Story’s quartet of first-class actresses are going through familiar motions.
Freak Show's lone glimmer of hope is its Big Bad: a disfigured, silent, and hulking serial killer named Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch). Wearing what looks like a flesh helmet that’s stitched into his forehead, Twisty’s a creepy mash-up of Leatherface and John Wayne Gacy, complete with a large, exaggeratedly grinning teeth arrangement that hides a gaping hole where his mouth should be. It’s Conrad Veidt’s The Man Who Laughs with absurd collagen:
The scenes with Twisty are Freak Show's most inspired, in particular a double homicide involving picnicking teens. There’s no mystery about why Twisty makes the biggest impression—in the first two episodes, none of the AHS roster's familiar faces interact with series newcomer John Carroll Lynch’s painted-up homicidal maniac. It’s like he exists in some parallel dimension's version of American Horror Story, one that's not beholden to Ryan Murphy’s cruise-control repetitiveness or Jessica Lange’s now-predictable scene domination.
Through Twisty, you can see what kind of demented horror series Murphy and company could once again produce if they’d clean house, refresh their IMDB browsers, and hire a new freak show.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who hopes, if nothing else, this season of AHS gets people to seek out Tod Browning's Freaks. He tweets here.