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‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Pilot Review: Carnies, Musical Numbers, Evil Clowns, Oh My

“There’s no place in Jupiter for freaks.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) my “thing” with evil serial killer clowns, Freak Show quickly became my most anticipated season of American Horror Story… though this might not be saying much. I had zero expectations going into Murder House, a fact which worked in my favor when later episodes became a hot confusing mess and I ended up only tuning in every week just to see how badly everyone would fuck up this time. Due to my negative opinion of the season one finale and mixed feelings on the season as a whole, I barely touched the second season, Asylum, and dropped it the instant alien abductions were introduced. Coven fared slightly better, though I still never finished out the season.

Freak Show, though, caught my interest for several reasons: this is the final season for Jessica Lange, whose performances in each season have been highly praised; my lack of experience with circuses as a child has apparently morphed into morbid fascination as an adult; and, as previously mentioned, evil serial killer clowns.

The pilot episode, “Monsters Among Us,” moved molasses slow, but I actually liked that about it. It fit the tone of a show about a 1950s “freak show” carnival whose audience is similarly trickling slowly into nothingness, despite carnival owner Elsa Mars’ (Jessica Lange) best efforts. Painted as a benevolent mother figure by the carnival workers and at times by the episode itself, it quickly becomes clear that Elsa’s motives aren’t as selfless as she makes them out to be. As distasteful as her constant other-ing of these people as “my freaks” and “my monsters” all for her own benefit may be, Jessica Lange does an excellent job as usual with showing nuance in her borderline deplorable characters.

The various carnies we’re introduced to in this episode are infinitely more interesting than Elsa and her “freak savior” routine. Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) is “Lobster Boy.” When he’s not being fiercely and violently protective of his showbiz family, he’s doing sex work for sexually unsatisfied housewives (you go, Jimmy). Jimmy’s mother, Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), also works at the carnival as The Bearded Lady and Elsa’s loyal right hand woman – though she’s not as blind to Elsa’s faults as we might think. There’s also Ma Petite played by Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest woman, Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), a near seven foot tall trans woman, and “Paul the Illustrated Seal” (Mat Fraser).

Last but certainly not least are the new additions to the group, Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson), sisters with two heads, two sets of lungs, and two hearts, sharing one body. Naturally, their personalties are polar opposites of one another; Dot is uptight, morose, and a little overdramatic with the constant angsting, while Bette is excitable and starry-eyed with a bit of a temper. Elsa recruits them straight out of police custody to be the freak show’s final grasp at fame and fortune. By the end of the episode, it seems to be working, as customers once again begin to flock to the show.

Honestly, even though it was initially a big draw for me, the clown was the least interesting part of the pilot. His face is creepy, yes, but the novelty of that wore off fast, and then we were left with a less-than-menacing clown stabbing and kidnapping people willy nilly. I get the feeling his apparent lack of motive or reasoning for his actions is supposed to be terrifying (like The Joker, perhaps) but instead it only makes his inclusion in this episode feel cheap and forced.

If anything, the show looks really, really good. The 1950s setting lets Freak Show play around with fun color schemes, costumes, and places. I’ve no idea if any of it is historically accurate, and I also don’t really care; the nightmarishness of this world both inside and out of the carnival tents makes it feel more like a glimpse into a strange alternate universe than anything that’s supposed to have plausibly happened. The directing here is purposefully, disconcertingly, and entertainingly claustrophobic, with quickly zoomed in close-ups on characters’ faces creating a constant off-balance feeling. I suppose the same could be said for the episode’s use of music and sound effects, though in a less entertaining way; the discordant string music every time Elsa said something “meaningful” was really annoying.

All in all, for an hour and a half pilot that moved so slowly, I had a surprising amount of fun with American Horror Story: Freak Show. I still fully expect my opinion on this to go the way of previous seasons of AHS, but at least for now, I’ll let myself be a repeat customer.