American Horror Story: Freak Show Season 4 Review “Monsters Among Us”

American Horror Story Season 4 Episode 1 Monsters Among Us (3)

It’s October, so you know what that means, horror fans…it’s “American Horror Story” time! As a huge fan of the show- it’s one of my hands-down favorites on TV right now- I, for one, couldn’t wait. I thought last season was far and away the best, although I’ll admit I have a soft spot for witches and Stevie Nicks, so there’s that. I know some people hated the way it ended, but (spoiler alert for those who didn’t see it yet) as one who predicted a fair amount of time before it happened that Sarah Paulson’s character would ultimately end up being the Supreme, I felt satisfied, not to mention vindicated, as someone who never gets that sort of thing right. (Anyone I root for on reality talent shows is imminently doomed, let me tell you.)

This time around, the theme at hand is “Freak Show” and I was super-excited by that as well for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s set in Florida, where I used to live- yes, I know, it explains a lot about me, lol. (Bonus points for that devil head- see above pic- which bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar one that used to be at a now-defunct amusement park I used to go to all the time in Panama City as a kid.)

Second, I’ve always been fascinated by amusement parks, carnivals and circuses. Freak shows were a bit before my time, though I did see the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow at Lollapalooza a few times. Nonetheless, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of one, so I was already fascinated by what the show would do with the concept.

That said, I do not suffer from Coulrophobia, aka fear of clowns, so that part of it didn’t particularly frighten me. Sure, Tim Curry’s “Pennywise” from Stephen King’s “IT” was plenty scary, but I thought that the clown doll in “Poltergeist” was laughable, even as a kid, and the ridiculous “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” even more so. In fact, my sister had a clown doll just like the one in the former, and we used to play act out that scene from the movie together! (Yep, we were weird kids.)

Perhaps it’s because I never had in-close-quarters interaction with clowns like some kids did at birthday parties. The closest I came to them was at visits to the circus, so I can’t say they’ve ever freaked me out, really. I will say that the killer clown in “Freak Show” is admittedly pretty terrifying-looking, even if it didn’t especially scare me. (I’d probably say different if I were locked in his bus o’ terror, but then, wouldn’t we all?)

I think, as someone who grew up on a steady diet of horror movies, it takes a lot to scare me in a movie or TV show, so maybe that’s just me. I mean, there’s stuff in real life that’s way scarier, you know? Look at John Wayne Gacy, for instance. Now that’s a scary clown. As such, your tolerance for such things may be lower than mine, but trust me, I will let you know if anything on this show gives me the willies for reals. Until then, it certainly doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the show thus far, or any of the previous seasons, for that matter.

The premiere episode, “Monsters Among Us,” basically served to introduced us to most of the main characters, with more to come in the weeks to come. In this one, we met Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), the proprietor of the “Freak Show” at hand, though she doesn’t think of them that way. To her, her entertainers are just that- entertainers. Nonetheless, each of them, including Elsa herself, have disabilities of some kind that make them off-putting to “regular” folk in some way, shape or form.

For instance, Elsa is missing the bottom half of her legs and her feet, and is fitted with prosthetics to get around. As such, she can move about “normal” society easier than others in her troupe. Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), looks like a normal, hunky guy…until you see his hands, which are misshapen and similar to lobster claws. As we discover in a decidedly off-color scene involving supposedly “proper” ladies, they have other uses as well that aren’t so off-putting. (Proof that FX can basically get away with murder, exhibit A.)

There’s also various dwarves, including one with full-body tattoos and appendages like flippers, and the miniscule little Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), who’s adorable; “pinhead” types, including the returning Pepper (Naomi Grossman), which is, to the best of my knowledge, the first character to repeat in the series’ history; Jimmy’s mother, the bearded lady, Ethel (Kathy Bates); Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin, formerly of “Hemlock Grove”), who more than lives up to her name; and the women who become the ad-hoc stars of the show, Bette and Dot Tattler (both played by Sarah Paulson, in a tour de force performance), a literal two-headed woman in one body.

It was hard not to think of the classic movie “Freaks” while watching this, which was a movie that, given that it also used people with real-life deformities, did freak me out- no pun intended- when I saw it as a kid, admittedly. If I think of that scene towards the end in the rain, I still get shudders. By all means, if you haven’t seen this classic film, which basically sank “Dracula” filmmaker Tod Browning’s career at the time, please rush to YouTube and watch it asap- it’s free, and well worth it if you like this sort of thing. It’s clearly a big influence on this season of “AHS.”

There were two main events in this particular side show this week- the Tattler’s murder of their mother, and the killing rampage of the aforementioned killer clown (an unrecognizable John Carroll Lynch, also of the similar “Carnivàle”), who hangs about the carnival, but doesn’t seem to be an official part of it as of yet. He lives in a not-so-magic bus, where he inexplicably kidnaps some victims and holds them hostage, in this case a little boy and a teenage girl, and performs tricks for them.

There was also a subplot involving candy-striper Penny (Grace Gummer, aka Meryl Streep’s daughter, late of “Extant”), who literally left her job to join the circus, lending Elsa her outfit so that she could move in and out of the hospital where the Tattler sisters were being held, ultimately helping them escape. In the show’s far-and-away most unsettling sequence, when Penny protested her treatment and wanted to leave immediately, saying that she would tell everyone what happened to her there, Elsa proceeded to show her filmed footage of just what Penny had up to.

It was hard to see some of it- likely by necessity, as FX, as much as they get away with, still have to uphold some standards- but it basically looked as if a drugged-out Penny engaged in an orgy with the freaks, and didn’t seem to be protesting all too much in the process. Hey, to each their own. At one point I thought I saw the most impressive example of woman-to-man oral sex I’ve ever seen, but it was hard to tell, so maybe that was just my mind filling in the blanks. Either way, freaky stuff- pun definitely intended this time!

Another stand-out scene was Elsa performing with her people for rich kid Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock, “Noah”) and his mother, Gloria (Frances Conroy). We got to see the full sequence of performers here for the first time in all their splendor, complete with Elsa’s rendition of the David Bowie classic “Life on Mars?” It was definitely of a piece with the “Name Game” bit from Season Two, aka “Asylum.” Lange’s performance here is a camp delight, channeling Marlene Dietrich, while at the same time coming off like a sad funhouse mirror version of the same. Tellingly, Elsa hates her, even going so far as to collect bad reviews of the actress in a scrapbook, no doubt because Dietrich had the career Elsa herself never got to have.

So, was any of this scary? Not really. Disturbing at times, maybe. Okay, definitely. But scary, not so much. On the plus side, the direction, by creator Ryan Murphy, was fantastic, and the score, by Robert Allaire, is wonderfully unnerving. As ever, the credit sequence is nightmarish and scarier than the show itself. Visually, the show is stunning, and the cast is perfection, so it’s got a lot going for it.

All things told, I can’t say I have a lot of complaints so far. It’s everything I’d hoped it’d be and then some. However, the real test will be how the show fares over the course of the season. What will the main plotline be, or will it be a bit on the scattershot side, a la “Asylum,” where it seemed like the titular location served as a center around which various crazy stuff happened, but never quite came together?

From the looks of the previews, at least some of that storyline will be devoted to con artist types, played by more returning favorites, Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts, who I gather are looking for priceless artifacts of some kind or another. There’s also new recruits played by another returning fave, Angela Bassett (as a three-boobed hermaphrodite!) and newcomer Michael Chiklis, as his/her happy hubby. (My apologies if the latter pronouns are offensive, not knowing how else to term things!)

At one point, it also looks as if Gloria hires the killer clown to perform for her son! I’m guessing she will come to regret that purchase, but who knows in a show like this? Maybe Dandy’s crazier than the killer clown. Maybe they will form a buddy-clown killing team spin-off. Who knows? That’s just part of the fun to be had on a show like “American Horror Story.” That is, if you consider this sort of thing fun. But if you didn’t, why would you be watching it? So far, it is a lot of fun, so I’m definitely in.

What did you think of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” so far? Did you like the main storylines? What did you think of the characters? Do you have a favorite so far? How about a least favorite? Any particular character you want to know more about sooner than later? How impressed were you by Paulson’s dual performance, if at all? What did you think of the musical number? What direction do you hope the show will go in, in the immediate future? Sound off on this and more down below, and see you next week!