American Horror Story: Test of Strength

Posted on November 20, 2014


Michael Chiklis and Denis O’Hare in FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show” 

We must have started this review off a dozen different ways and we had to scrap each one because they all sounded so cranky. Worse, they all sounded so stale. We’ve been down this road with this show before and we’re not sure there’s anything left to say. But since we buffered the blow with an introductory paragraph, we’ll keep the last one, because it works as a thesis statement for the rest of this review:

With American Horror Story: Freak Show, Ryan Murphy has found the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of ADHD-style showrunning. He never has to worry about sustaining the quality over the long haul because he just keeps recycling everything over and over again, only changing the names and the backdrops each time to give the illusion that each season is fresh and new.

Ouch. What a couple of bitches. But are we wrong, really? If any other show was this repetitive season after season, with exactly the same narrative problems popping up in exactly the same places each time; with the core cast of actors essentially playing the same cast of characters each time, with different names and accents? Not just Jessica Lange, who looks bored out of her mind this season, but Emma Roberts, whose performances are indistinguishable even though she’s supposedly playing vastly different characters. Or Evan Peters, who will always, it seems, be forced to bear the weight of Murphy’s two-decade-old crush on Kurt Cobain, because he can only ever play cute, tortured outsiders on this show. Last night’s musical number (Because hey, everyone loved that “Name Game” bit with Jessica in S2, so why not drive that conceit right into the ground?) was absolutely cringe-worthy. Even Peters seemed a little sheepish about the whole thing. And is Desiree really all that different in style from last year’s Marie Laveau? Frances Conroy, Denis O’Hare, Finn Witrock and Kathy Bates are giving it their all, but they can only take this material so far.

We keep complaining that there’s so little (none, really) horror this season post-Twisty. After a fantastic start to the season, they inexplicably killed off the only truly scary and freakish character on the show and then turned the whole thing into a soap opera played against a colorful backdrop. This episode felt like an attempt to get the audience horrified again, with the death of Ma Petite and the mutilation of Penny by her father, but neither of these scenes had the impact they should have. Penny disappeared for quite a few episodes after the freaks all had their way with her, only to return out of nowhere announcing her love for one of them to a father character with no defining traits at all, except “father.” Out of nowhere, he turns out to be this utterly monstrous human being. Alrighty, then. What did you say your name was, again?

As for Ma Petite, we should have felt more seeing her murdered and her dead body put on display, but the writers helpfully prepared the audience for this possibility by writing several fakeout death scenes for the character. All the emotional impact was drained from the real deal because the audience kept waiting for the reveal that it wasn’t real, only to slowly get to the “Oh. I guess she’s really dead this time” point. Why on earth would the writers set up what should have been the most emotionally devastating scene of the season so badly? The writing was so bad on this one that it robbed the scene of any power at all. Once again, this show shoots itself in the foot because it has a very casual relationship with narrative structure or pacing.

Aside from that, what else is there to say that we haven’t already said about this show and this season? It’s a soap opera – and a boring one – set in a freak show. Worse, very little of what the characters do makes any sense at all, which means we can’t even have a mindless emotional reaction to anything. We’re too busy “WTF?”-ing to care.

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