*** WARNING: Contains spoilers! Please do not read on unless you've seen the premiere episode of "American Horror Story: Freak Show," titled "Monsters Among Us." Or if you don't mind spoilers, go right ahead! ***
You know what they say: Florida is where the weirdest things happen. That certainly seems to be the case on "American Horror Story: Freak Show"; the premiere was all sorts of bats**t crazy, and despite its setting back in idyllic 1952 Jupiter, Florida, the cookie-cutter square-box stereotypes of that era have absolutely no place here. They never do on "AHS," which I'm pleased to report has once again upped the intensity, the insanity, and the outright what-the-f**kness of the whole franchise yet again with "Freak Show."
Things get nuts, and they get there quickly. "Freak Show" is not the slow burn that was "Coven." Instead, "Freak Show" has more of a whiplash, chaotic feel, almost as if you're wandering the carnival midway, with flashes of colour in your vision and loud noises all around you. You can't tell where to look, but man, when you catch a glimpse, it sticks with you. From Evan Peters' Lobster Boy sex hands to Meryl Streep Jr.'s opium-infused orgy to Jessica Lange's acid-trip singing performance, "Freak Show" is like absolute crack for true fans. "AHS" lunatics should dig this right from the start, as soon as we see Jessica Lange strutting into the hospital with her omnipresent cigarette, her Cruella de Vil furs, her hat and that walk. We missed you, Ms. Lange.
And how enjoyable was the big, slow reveal of Sarah Paulson's (expertly played) Bette and Dot? Sure, we all knew it was coming, but they tantalized us by describing her inner organs, showing her feet, then revealing one head, then finally two. I will admit, in the off-season, I had some fears about Paulson's character. Would it be too gimmicky? I was quickly relieved to see that Murphy and Falchuk chose to have fun with the concept rather than just splay it out there as a water-cooler item. [Side note: This is where "Coven" veered off-course. Too many far-out gimmicks without any concrete tie-ins to plot or consistency.] More fun is had when the cameras shoot from one head's perspective, or when they split the shot so we can see what Bette and Dot individually see. For her part(s), Paulson nails it again, just as she does in every season of "AHS." She's instantly the most interesting character(s), and the dichotomous personalities of the two heads are a fantastic final touch.
The other "AHS" veteran, Peters, certainly got short-changed in "Coven" as the gutteral Kyle, but this season's Jimmy Darling might be Peters' best character yet. He's rocking the ducktail hair, and his Lobster Boy hands certainly have their ... ahem .. "uses." I enjoyed one two-minute scene with Jimmy more than an entire season of Kyle. He has a lot going on, too: feelings of being trapped in the circus, resentment towards Elsa [Lange], his underground sex services to pent-up '50s housewives, his desire to be more than just a "freak," his war against the townspeople -- which should be interesting when it ramps up -- and his relationship with his mother, Ethel [Kathy Bates as a subdued, line-toeing bearded lady]. It was nice to not have the desire to change the channel when he wandered onscreen.
Of course, not everything on "AHS" can be sunshine and lollipops. "Freak Show" is ultimately the tale of a bunch of misfits, people with deformities finding safety and comfort amongst their own. As we saw on "Coven," "AHS" thrives when it pits an ostracized group against an established one. In this particular case, if I may use a "Family Guy" term, it's the "normies" vs. the freaks. The whole idea (hammered home a bit too literally -- and frequently -- by Lange, Peters and Bates; show, don't tell, guys, c'mon) is that the normies and freaks will be inverted, and the true ugliness of the civilized will shine through while the freaks will be the righteous victors. I wonder if "AHS: Freak Show" will eventually subvert that subversion as the season goes on, and have the monsters truly become monsters. Elsa, as head honcho, is only out for her own fame (as we discover at the end of the episode), and will use anyone to get it. And that cop-stabbing mutilation scene with Jimmy inspiring his army is indicative of some serious repercussions for the townspeople.
Let's not forget the elephant in the room ... or rather, the hideous, terrifying clown on the show: Twisty. Ever since the days of Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King's "It," clowns have been more frightening than entertaining. "Freak Show" once again ups the ante with Twisty's mask (?), which could very well be his torn-up face, his dirty, stained costume, and that godawful stare. I swear I caught myself having to look away from the TV. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but when Twisty taunts the teenage girl and the little boy in the cages, it was like torture for us, the viewer. I kept thinking: when is this going to end?! Stop banging on the cages! Oh God, what is he pulling out of his pocket?! There's also something about incessant chest stabbing (which we also saw before on "Coven") that is particularly unnerving. I'm interested to see if Twisty joins up with the freak show, or if he uses their battle for his own selfish, disturbing purposes.
In true fashion, "Freak Show" closes its premiere with a touching, well-shot scene of Elsa revealing her own "freak" quality: her lack of legs. We'd spent the whole episode thinking that Lange's character was a madam of sorts, not actually one of the circus members. But we see in one fell swoop why she's not a 1950's Hollywood star, but also why she's so motivated to keep her freak show up and running. It's all she has, and it's all she lives for. Well that, and subjecting unsuspecting candy stripers to the mind-altering effects of opium.
Until next week, when I hear things get even crazier! (P.S. - it's lovely to be back, "AHS" fans! Thank you for having me. Not like you had a choice.)
Freak Of The Week: I'm loving everyone from Jyoti Amge to the tattooed British guy, but this week's freak has to be Bette and Dot. Just as they're the headliner (head -- get it?) of the freak show, they're the headliner of "Freak Show." It's impossible to look away when she's/they're on-screen.Random Thoughts:
- I want to issue an important disclaimer going forward: I have a lot of discomfort using the word "freak" as a descriptor, but for lack of a better word, it's how I will be referring to the circus member characters. I mean NO offence to anyone, but am simply using the show's lexicon because it's easier.
- I didn't mention anything about Frances Conroy's character, Gloria Mott. She's back to chewing the scenery this season, which is how I love my Conroy. Just give her some ridiculous gloves and a wig and it's off to the races!
- At first I thought there were two Peppers, but then realized it's a boy Pepper and a girl Pepper. I hope his name isn't Salt. That would be too much.
- As in "Coven," the colours and scenery of the southern U.S. are gorgeous. I know "AHS" super-saturates everything, but it really adds to the fantastical and dreamlike quality of this series. Also loved the close-ups of the '50s food, which looked, in a word, revolting.
- D-licious D-livery.
- Loved when Bette inhaled the cigarette and Dot exhaled. SO FUN.
- I haven't seen that much blue eyeshadow since the '80s, Elsa.
- I am not a prude at all, but when Evan Peters had those housewives lining up for his "shocking" services, and then they showed almost all of it happening, I was floored! The graphic sexuality adds a whole other element to the show. Here's hoping no one decided to let their kids watch this ... or else they're answering a lot of questions right about now.
"American Horror Story: Freak Show" airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX and FX Canada.