American Horror Story: Freak Show was a mess. The first two seasons of AHS are great, but the third, Coven, was hugely disappointing. A promising set-up turned out to be a red herring, and the rest of the season ended up collapsing under the pressure of too many ideas, and too much attention being paid to a few ‘star’ actors. It was depressing to see that Freak Show took this pattern even further.
The decision to re-use actors in different roles across seasons makes some sense, but was already becoming a problem by season three. It started to feel like the show was being written to provide something to do for Jessica Lange, and also Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates to a lesser extent, rather than being written to create a compelling story or compelling characters. That problem is accentuated in season four with Jessica Lange’s character, Elsa Mars, dominating the entire season, despite being (to me) an uninteresting and unappealing character. Moreover, she is basically playing exactly the same character she did in seasons two and three. The theme continued this time with the character portrayed by Evan Peters (Jimmy Darling) being a constant centre of attention despite barely developing and spending half the season wallowing in monotonous self-pity. Some of the scenes involving these characters were so bad I ended up burying my face in my hands. If a show can achieve that out of fear that’s an achievement; but here, I couldn’t bear to watch because the writing was so poor.
Probably the most excruciating aspect of the season was the singing. I disliked most of the song and dance numbers in previous seasons, but here it hits new lows with scene after scene of Jessica Lange singing, as well as other characters. The scene where Peters sings Nirvana’s ‘Come as you are’ was one of the most annoying things I have seen on TV this year. It’s rare for a director to film singing well; some, like David Lynch, are able to use it to create atmosphere and mystery. Here it was just done as a way to artificially puff up the characters and/or actors and I disliked it intensely.
Jessica Lange apparently is not returning to AHS and I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad if that’s the case. The central problem here though is the writing not the actors, and my expectation now is that the writers will just find someone else they can use as the show’s mascot. That said, some of the acting really was quite poor, and Emma Roberts deserves a mention here. She may be very attractive and from something of an acting dynasty but some of her acting here was just abysmal. There were a couple of times when she seemed utterly bored and disengaged from her own performance; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In contrast, Angela Bassett was guilty of what felt like serious overacting at times; in particular, during a misguided sequence which was supposed to be about female empowerment but in fact felt like a pastiche of it. Finn Wittrock’s Dandy Mott was one of the highlights of the series but that may be simply because the scenes he was in generally meant something in terms of plot development, in contrast to the endless scenes featuring Lange and Peters.
A few episodes were better than the rest, with the Edward Mordrake episodes at the beginning of the series being the best overall. I just wish I had stopped there. Other characters and story arcs were stretched thin over the course of eight or ten episodes, with Michael Chiklis’ strongman character being especially superfluous and forgettable. The sequences and sub-plots that were dramatically effective just served to reveal how incoherent and directionless the rest of it was. As if to make up for the general sense of pointlessness there was a regular stream of shocking or unpleasant violence, but the writers seem to overlook that this is only effective if it forms a part of an overall story. Otherwise it is, literally, gratuitous content, and a lazy attempt to make up for what is basically stupid writing.
One of the potentially interesting things about this season was that it portrayed an aspect of cultural history that is little examined. However it does so in such an anachronistic and shallow manner that it drains its subject of its intrinsic interest. There was very little evidence here of the kind of research or seriousness of approach that would give the show any resonance or, god forbid, that you could actually learn anything from. Moreover, the ‘freaks’ themselves are all peripheral characters used as largely passive objects for the machinations of the stars. By halfway through the season I wanted to cover my ears every time I heard Lange say ‘I love my monsters’ in that awful German accent. Just thinking about it now gives me the shivers.
It’s depressing to reflect on how far AHS has fallen. The first two seasons were very good, if uneven at times, and it was so refreshing to see genuine horror on TV. But Freak Show was a derisory effort and it is pathetic to see the critical plaudits and awards nominations it received. This is by no means a competent TV show let alone a good horror story, and it strikes me as the height of pretension to regard it as anything else.
On this evidence I don’t hold out much hope for season five.