Here’s a reprint of a recent TV column I wrote for Hot Press. WARNING: there be spoilers.
MY TV FORTNIGHT
WITH EDWIN McFEE
Recently at Castle McFee I waved goodbye, with my metaphorical lobster claw, to American Horror Story: Freak Show. Now that the dust has settled on this tale of Elsa Mars’ travelling carnival, looking back I feel that the fourth series of this wildly inventive anthology (yep, I’m still not down with this Yank-ified “season” lark) was definitely a divisive one. Ultimately though, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk should be applauded for not milking the tried and tested horror tropes this time around. As much as the FX Channel may have wanted a more straight forward show featuring large chested ladies incessantly running up stairs away from loonies whose one-liners are as sharp as their knives, the producers instead gave them (and us) an oddly sweet offering about misfits and mistakes.
Once again bolstered by another barn-storming performance from American Horror Story stalwart Jessica Lange, her turn as the fame-obsessed, German ex-pat Elsa Mars was, as expected, terrific. Full of pathos and pure ambition, the leader of the freak show was actually strangely lovable despite her [SPOILER] murderous ways. Other highlights of the 1952-set story was the tale of Pepper the Pin-Head and the eventual reveal that each series is loosely connected. While at first, one of the appeals of AMH was that each instalment featured a different theme and different characters (often played by the same troupe of actors), the comic fan in me loves the intertextuality of it all and [SPOILER] Sister Mary Eunice from American Horror Story: Asylum‘s unannounced appearance in Freak Show was a great treat for fans. Especially as it was set before the events of the aforementioned Asylum. Poor old Sister Mary Eunice….
Anyway, other high points included Neil Patrick Harris as the mental magician Chester Creb. Obsessed with his ventriloquist dummy (which looked a little like Susan Boyle to these eyes), his brief two episode stint was mesmerizing, as was Wes Bentley’s three episode turn as the (literally) two-faced nobleman Edward Mordrake who treaded the line between camp and creepy with ease.
Now onto the negatives. Namely, lobster boy Jimmy and his relentless weeping over [SPOILERS] the murder of Meep the Geek. While I’m sure wee Meep was a lovely lad (when he wasn’t biting the heads off of chickens for a laugh), the grief was over-cooked and unconvincing. Another misfire was the handling of Twisty the Clown, who unfortunately only appeared in five of the 13 episodes. An absolutely terrifying creation inspired in part by John Wayne Gacy, actor John Carroll Lynch was superb as the misunderstood maniac. In fact, according to director Ryan Murphy, a third of the crew often left the set when he was shooting his scenes as he scared them all shit-less. Sadly though, Twisty’s reign of terror ended abruptly and although many suffering from coulrophobia won’t thank me for it, I would’ve really loved to have seen more of his mutilated mug. Some rumours have said that show-runners canned the clown early as they felt he was simply too scary and would force viewers to turn off. Wusses!
Overall, Freak Show was an enjoyable oddity and certainly better than last year’s uneven Coven. New-comer to the series Finn Wittrock was the undisputed star for me. Playing murderous mammy’s boy Dandy Mott, he rivalled Jessica Lange when it came to on screen charisma and killer lines and here’s hoping the actor returns for AMH’s fifth chapter later this year.
Speaking of series number five, the writers have revealed they hid some Easter eggs related to the next theme (American Horror Story: Hotel) throughout Freak Show for fans to speculate over. According to Ryan Murphy, the various images of top hats in different episodes are worth paying attention to. Oh, and Lady Gaga will join the cast. Consider me more than intrigued.