American Horror Story has grown to become a show I love to hate. This is the kind of show we all want to enjoy, but as seasons progress, I’m finding myself increasingly less enthusiastic. Season 3 of American Horror Story was the least terrifying of all of the seasons thus far, leaning much more towards comedy and drama–an intentional move on the writers’ part. Still, we were at least left with a dose of torture and threw in some zombies for good measure. I had high hopes that Season 4 would be truly horrific, considering the subject: Freak Show. From the beginning of the show’s creation, creator Ryan Murphy had expressed his distaste for a circus-type theme, but for some reason was swayed. While there was a lot of death in Season 4, horror was never a part of it. Even the fan-favorite serial killer clown wasn’t around for more than a few episodes. Despite promises from the show’s creator that he’d return to haunt the town of Jupiter, Florida, he only appeared for a few short moments in the finale.
From the very beginning, I was worried that AHS would depend on the freaks themselves to provide the source of horror. That may have worked in the 70’s or 80’s, but this is 2015, and our world is generally accepting of disability, not horrified by it. Back in the day, folks with disabilities were put on display for us to gasp and gawk at. There’s a reason freak shows aren’t a thing anymore; somewhere along the way, we realized these were real people, and deserved to be treated as such.
Now, I’m not saying the show was completely deplorable. I really enjoyed the thematic elements that American Horror Story has been known to create. The artistic depiction of a freak show in the 50’s holds a tragic beauty to it. As always, the sets and costumes were beautifully done. I also think it’s wonderful that the creators decided to use actual “freaks”, folks with known disabilities, for some of the characters. I’ll admit, my harsh criticism of Freak Show does come from high expectations for a “horror” show that’s been known to be depressing and dark. What we’ve seen the last couple years has definitely been angled to draw in a larger demographic.
I’d like to take a brief moment to mention that the creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, are also responsible for the atrocity known as “Glee.” Glee’s cancellation was announced in 2014, and I’m sure it was before the writing for “Freak Show” had been completed. This was the first season of AHS to feature musical numbers — No less than 5 full songs, to be exact. We rarely went an episode without some sort of solo performance by the cast. It very much felt like Murphy is trying to cling to the dying ashes of his high school musical drama by forcing shoddy musical covers down our throats.
The acting, per usual, was incredibly well done. Evan Peters and Jessica Lange continue to steal the spotlight, albeit with poorly written characters. Peters plays the famed Lobster Boy, whose deformity and history are based on a real-life serial killer. The character’s true horror was only hinted at briefly for one episode; Jimmy Darling spends the majority of the season whining and drinking. Lange continues to be typecast, once again playing a twisted Prima Donna who you don’t know whether to love or hate. For a season that spent so much time on character development, none of the characters really tugged at my heartstrings. We saw several multi-episode arcs explaining the origin of one freak or another; these characters were quickly pushed from the limelight as soon as their episodes were over. Death of a character should make us feel something, and this is the first time AHS has failed pretty hard at the human, emotional element. Nevertheless, the show continues in its tradition of discovering up-and-coming stars. Finn Wittrock stole the show as insane pretty-boy Dandy Mott. Some of the best moments of the season were the celebrity cameos; we saw appearances by Wes Bentley, Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka, and Matt Bomer.
Let’s talk plot. There definitely isn’t an overarching plot involved; Instead, we were treated to several mini-stories: A con man and woman trying to sell deformed body parts to a museum, an alcoholic strong man who can’t figure out which team he plays for, several forbidden love affairs, and two different serial killers all featured in this year’s display. The finale was drastic and dramatic, but used cheap methods to bring the story to a close. While everyone got their due justice by the end, the saga never really came together. It’s disappointing that in our times where so much source material is accessible, Freak Show didn’t manage to capture any of it. The show shamelessly borrowed from the 1930’s black and white film Freaks, as well as American Psycho. While the former was eventually credited, stories like “Carnivale” have taken us through a freak show saga much more eloquently.
I will say that I’m excited how the seasons are beginning to get tied together. Fans were treated to easter eggs and connections from my favorite season, Asylum. However, since the show seems to be continuing to stray away from any sort of true horror, I’m no longer going to be following it as closely. If you haven’t seen this season yet, give it a once over, but don’t get your hopes too high. Murphy may be gaining a more mainstream audience, but in doing so, he’s leaving true horror fans in the dust.