TV Review: American Horror Story Takes Us To The Freak Show

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are bringing the freaks to your home on the new season of American Horror Story. Subtitled Freak Show, the anthology series occupies itself with traveling sideshows and those who call them home.

Set in 1952, in the sleepy hamlet of Jupiter, Florida, we meet Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), who runs one of the last remaining sideshows in the country. Elsa’s having trouble keeping the lease on the local farmland, struggling to put butts in the seats. When a shocking murder and discovery rocks the small town, Elsa believes she might have found a way to keep the doors open in the form of Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), who have a kind of conjoined thing going on.

Most of the series premiere focuses on character work, taking us on a tour of Elsa’s menagerie and how they relate, or better don’t, with the locals. Some have found ways to make extra money, like Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), who uses his gift to address a dissatisfaction among the local housewives. There’s a story in each of them, especially the frustrated starlet in Elsa, and AHS looks on track to spending quality time exploring its cast of characters.

But fear not, horror fans! Jupiter is also being stalked by Twisty the killer clown. Dressed in a filthy clown costume and sporting a nightmare worthy grin, Twisty is on a murder/kidnapping spree that’s terrorizing the community. So there’s plenty of grisly violence and psychological terror at play. It doesn’t do much to foster better relations between the sideshow and the town, either.

Early standouts, character wise, are the usual suspects. Kathy Bates does a wonderfully subdued performance as bearded lady and show enforcer, Ethel Darling, who is also Jimmy’s mother. It’s a welcome change from her “boisterous” job on last season’s Coven. Jessica Lange does a fine job as Elsa, struggling with her desire for fame and loving her “family,” but it’s worth noting that Lange could do this character justice in her sleep. We’ve been seeing her deliver performances like this since season one.

It’s no surprise that Sarah Paulson’s quickly rises to the top. As Bette and Dot, Paulson is the audience proxy into Elsa’s world. But Paulson does an incredible job crafting two completely different women who happen to share the same body. Her strong performances here are lifted up by special effects that look seamless. I’m her first few moments onscreen it’s difficult not to look for places where the digital work fails, but I sure didn’t see any. Besides, after those few minutes, Paulson manages to captivate and I stopped caring about searching for effect quality flaws.

American Horror Story is still very much in the bonkers world of Murphy and Falchuk. As a premiere, “Monsters Among Us,” nails the mood and the tone as we’ve come to expect from their openers. AHS always manages to find interesting methods of exposition delivery, so there’s never a burden of too much information.

Sure, we’ve seen these themes and settings many times. And while the premiere seems to follow those conventions, AHS is more about characters first, then the screams of terror. There’s even a full in Murphy moment near the end where things head into Baz Luhrmann territory, and the balance almost gets thrown off, but this is classic American Horror Story. If you’re here, you’re here to play in their sandbox. Just be careful…there might be a monster buried in the sand.

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