01 “Monsters Among Us” (American Horror Story: Freak Show) [SPOILERS]

ahs freakshow

I have been looking forward to this. That can hardly be a secret. I am a huge fan of American Horror Story, of all three seasons so far. As a series it is far from perfect, with frequent flaws for me to gripe about, and irritating plot avenues going absolutely nowhere.

But what it does do, what really makes me love it, is that it breaks the mould of the boring, sameish, tired approaches to TV. It has a creative flare, and a will to experiment, which means that even when it doesn’t succeed, I love it for trying.

This season’s theme is Freak Show, which has been sending shivers down my spine for months. I am not terribly keen on clowns. Coulrophobia, wikipedia calls it. Common sense, I call it. Whether it is scary or not, whether it is successful or not, we’re in for some of the best TV going.

The new series opens on conjoined twins Bette and Dot (both played by Sarah Paulson) being found by a milkman, with their murdered mother downstairs. The twins being “a monster”, they are immediately suspects for the killing — never mind that they, or at least Bette, did it — and are offered safety and haven by Elsa Mars. Elsa’s troupe includes a variety of AHS alumni, including Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters) whose fingers are fused and his mother Ethel “The Bearded Lady” Darling (Kathy Bates). Dot and Bette try to settle in among the carnies, each with their own personalities and attitudes to it. Oh, and there’s a psychotic clown, called Twisty, on the rampage, butchering and kidnapping people.

The first thing to say is that the mood is spot on. In contrast to the slightly mournful feel of Coven, this starts from the very first moments with a deep sense of unease and eeriness. And the sets — particularly at the carnival — are works of art.

I love the fact that Sarah Paulson has been given a more central role. She shone in Asylum, but for most of Coven was a little sidelined. Here she is going to be front an centre, head-lining the show as it were. Her portrayal as the conjoined twins sparkled with two distinct personalities, not just in the written character, but in her acting.

Jessica Lange is also on fine form, as a faded dame of the Berlin cabaret scene. This is Lange’s last outing with American Horror Story, and she’s clearly going to make it count. She takes shape at first as a curator, lovingly gathering the outcasts to her for their protection. I think it moved a bit quickly when it revealed her own ambitions and purposes in the performances this episode, but the final scenes of her were brilliantly pitched — quiet, but revealing and moving at once.

I’ll be honest, Elsa’s rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” confused me. For one thing, this is set in the 50s. Is the implication that Bowie nicked the song from her? It also didn’t fit brilliantly with the rest of the show — not like Coven‘s “The Name Game“. Which may actually have been the point — Elsa is making the show all about her. Witness the carnies’ boredom as they move the ‘waves’ whilst she sings.

And whilst I don’t know where the freaky mother and spoilt son thing is going, I am delighted that Francis Conroy is back.

But it is Twisty the Clown which is going to be the real star of this show, I suspect. The design is perfect. Not too neat, but with a mask — I hope a mask — reminiscent of Batman’s Joker. And the silent, brutalistic violence, coupled with whimsy and comic exaggeration. It’s basically like he’s been plucked from my nightmares. And the fact that he is there, standing sentinel, as the carnies hack apart the dead detective. I suspect that not only is he going to be the most terrifying villain of the show so far, but he will be an avatar for violence throughout the show.

A tremendous, if not note perfect, opening, and I don’t have the words to adequately express how much I am looking forward to the rest of the series. I have no idea what is going to happen, but I know it will be worth watching.

Closing thoughts:

  • I’d forgotten how good the music is. The first few notes of the soundtrack had me on edge, and the switched-up edit of the theme music is new and familiar and brilliant.
  • The odd sexual discomfort scenes are back. From Elsa discussing masturbation with Bette and Dot (which actually serves well as an early characterisation scene for the twins), and Jimmy’s side job, err, pleasuring housewives…
  • Pepper! Pepper’s back!
  • Yeah, I’m not going to be sleeping well as long as this series lasts, am I?

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