The masterstroke of AMERICAN HORROR STORY has been its self-rejuvenating format, with each season a self-contained miniseries—starring many of the same actors, in different roles. If you hate a particular season, you can safely stop watching and come back the following year. Unfortunately, one thing always remains the same: the quality of its writing. The problem with AHS is that it's always masking its many flaws with great casting and visceral ghastliness, but when one acclimates to those elements the story's found wanting and every season's gone off-the-rails after a half-dozen episodes.
The setup for this fourth season, Freak Show, is characteristically enticing and yet oddly inert. Having long ago realised it's easier to accept this show's brand of ridiculousness in a period setting, we're once again thrown back in time...
It's 1952 and German-born Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) runs one of the last remaining travelling freak shows, which is on its uppers. The public just aren't drawn to bizarre acts like Ethel (Kathy Bates) the bearded lady, Jimmy "Lobster Boy" Darling's (Evan Peters) malformed hands, the smallest woman in the world (Jyoti Amge), and tattooed men with phocomelia (real-life sufferer Mat Fraser). Elsa needs a big new act to draw the crowds, so she befriends conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (a two-headed Sarah Paulson) in the hope of improving their fortune.
Elsewhere, there's a killer clown on the loose called Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), who's murdered two young lovers during a lakeside picnic, and imprisoned two children... because, of course there is. AHS can't resist throwing in a creepy boogieman.
Rather like the freak shows of its subject-matter, this premiere entertained because people are naturally drawn to the unusual and the weird. And that's something AHS has long excelled at, despite rarely bringing anything new to the table. It's made by horror fans who take great delight in putting their spin on the genre's clichés and tropes, while paying homage to classic films (Tod Brownng's Freaks is an obvious touchstone for Freak Show), but uniqueness is a little harder to come by...
Which is a crying shame, although I savour the occasional gust of a fresh idea—like the different eye-lines of the Tattler twins being shown using a split-screen in this premiere. I also enjoy AHS when it seizes a chance to be full-blown preposterous camp, so a later scene when Elsa sang David Bowie's "Life on Mars" (a song that won't be written for another 19 years) while surrounded by her performing "monsters", was right up my alley. Lange's make-up was the scariest thing in the whole hour.
Freak Show already suggests it's sticking to the tried-and-trusted AHS formula: introduce some compelling ideas inspired by other successes, ensure there are a few twisted ideas every episode (here, Lobster Boy using his fused-fingers to double-penetrate a woman during sex), make sure everything looks glossy rather than gaudy, soak the production in a croaky soundtrack, give the talented ensemble crazy shit to do, and sit back as people tune in for a weekly gawp as the winter nights draw in. If you love the formula, you'll love this.
AHS has been a small-screen version of a travelling carnival all along, really. I only hope I don't want my figurative money back when the show's over.
written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk • directed by Ryan Murphy • 8 October 2014 • FX