Friday, October 10, 2014

'American Horror Story: Freak Show' 4.01: "Monsters Among Us" Review

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Ever since American Horror Story certified itself as an anthology series as opposed to something with a single continuity, there have been a few possible themes fans have been eager to see Ryan Murphy and co. tackle with their specific flair.  Anyone that’s even stepped foot into the fandom at large knows that the ideas of exploring the Salem witch trials as well as some sort of circus/carnival setting are the two that were the most thought of for future iterations. Last year gave us Coven which covered witches if not exactly much Salem. Or horror truthfully. Don’t worry though, there’s a series on another network that’s doing a hell of a job with that story. That left us with the concept of a twisted circus or perhaps even a freak show.  The fourth season premiere, “Monsters Among Us”, spent a super-sized ninety minutes introducing us to the newest landscape for new and veteran AHS performers alike to explore as this season follows a sideshow troupe on its last legs in 1950’s small town Florida.

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Elsa Mars is a (Jessica Lange) a German expat holding onto dreams of stardom despite the fact that her current surroundings are far from traditionally glamorous. Her traveling cabinet of curiosities is on the cusp of being evicted from their lease and the days where townsfolk would line up to catch a glimpse of any sort of oddity have passed them by leaving in their wake a sense of true uncertainty regarding the future of both Elsa and her makeshift family of performers. The future of the show lies on the shoulders of a potential act that might prove to be its savior—a pair of super-conjoined twins.

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This episode gave us time with each of the three ‘core’ AHS veterans: Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Evan Peters. All three actors have appeared on every iteration so far of the series and at this point truly need to be challenged and pushed that much more to prevent any sort of stagnation with their characters. One of my major complaints about Coven was the entire trajectory, or lack thereof, for Lange’s character Fiona Goode. She just wasn’t terribly interesting ultimately. Sure, she had a hell of a wardrobe but her lack of any kind of true weakness left Lange with so very little to do but flaunt designer dresses and chain-smoke. That might have made Ryan Murphy happy but just experiencing one episode with Lange’s performance of Elsa Mars makes it clear that she’s a lot more excited with the material this year.

Why wouldn’t she be, especially when Elsa is a chance to play a character that gets to
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experience true vulnerability—I’m just in love with everything about her choices following that rousing performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars’. Following a season with the infuriatingly indefatigable Fiona Goode any chance to see Lange get to do some first-rate broken heart reaction shots provides a refreshing reminder of why she stole season one out from under the Harmon family. I kept waiting for her arrogant catty rejoinder toward Frances Conroy’s latest character when Elsa’s singing was insulted…and it never came. That’s something which immediately makes Elsa Mars a unique character for Jessica to breathe life into for the rest of the season, and that’s before the big reveal at the end of the episode. Boy, American Horror Story sure does have its favorite tropes to explore, but choosing to give the fairly untouchable Lange something like this to work with excites me greatly for what other unwritten boundaries the show will cross this year.

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Paulson and Peters also suffered from the creative stagnation of their Coven characters (Cordelia is really only memorable as being the eventual Supreme and the less that’s said about Kyle’s utterly wasted story potential, the better).  But this is what makes American Horror Story more of a rewarding experience than not year in and year out. Didn’t like last year? Well it’s all going to change next time so stay tuned. This year, Evan’s playing Jimmy Darling the young man with the so-called ‘lobster claw’ affliction that leaves his fingers fused together and perfect for giving frigid fifties housewives proper orgasms. I just want to know which writer in the room thought that because his prosthetic is rather phallic looking that they had to go there with it. Peters is game as always however, and this facet of Jimmy promises his most sexually explicit season yet. Remember in Asylum when gifs of his bare ass were everywhere? I have a feeling we’ll get scenes coming our way this year that will adorn many a dashboard in the same way. What I’m intrigued by is Jimmy’s apparent quickness to anger and the kinds of bad decisions that come from that trait as evidenced in the premiere when a cop came sniffing around the lot for the twins. Can’t wait to see how things go down when his father shows up next week to challenge his status as the top dog of the troupe.

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Sarah has the flashiest role this year since she’s getting to play two very different girls sharing the majority of one body. Bette and Dot’s circumstances before they left to join the freak show are a main focus of the episode and give us a great introduction to the very important distinctions between the sisters. It’s so much more gray then simply a good twin and a bad as Dot is dour, judgmental, and a cynic. Her sister Bette is wide-eyed, ambitious, and prone to tantrums. After a bloody incident involving their mother and a thwarted chance to go to the movies, Elsa introduces herself to the girls and coaxes them to come join the show. The sheltered duo are going to be part of a new world filled with equal parts acceptance and revulsion as they find a new family with the troupe all while being thrust into a spotlight as a commodity for the general public to gaze upon. The very existence of this character as a concept almost seems like the natural conclusion to the question, ‘what does Sarah Paulson have to do to get an Emmy for AHS, grow another head?’ But this is exactly the sort of challenge someone as talented and versatile as Sarah Paulson deserves and I have no doubt she’s going to create an iconic performance that can stand head to head to head with her own Lana Winters.

It would have been disingenuous to have a freak show theme and merely dress up the usual
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suspects in all manner of prosthetic. Thankfully, there have been several performers cast this year that run the spectrum of talents and body types and they’re getting the chance to participate in a narrative that showcases the struggle of the outcast in a changing world—a theme that has been touched upon in every season so far to a degree. Before the premiere aired, a series of videos appeared on the American Horror Story Facebook account that featured each of these new additions in an empathetic, sincere, and humanizing way that is so necessary to keep the audience from thinking of these actors as just various freaks used as set dressing this season. As fun as it is to see the big name actors with these new challenging roles, personally I’m eager to see the various stories each of these performers will get to be part of. Even if their fate is as abysmal as so many of the differently-bodied that came before them. We’ve seen where someone like Pepper winds up and asylums like Briarcliff are shitty sure, but just in case a looming unhappy ending isn’t enough dread for the audience there’s a supremely terrifying clown that stabs people in broad daylight.

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Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) is one of those phobias that’s almost too easy to draw upon for the sake of scaring the audience. There’ve been countless depraved and maniacal evil clowns throughout pop culture so AHS had their work cut out to try and break through with a creation that could make people that didn’t already have said phobia get a severe one. What’s clever about Twisty isn’t just his outer appearance—in itself a disturbing visage—full credit here has to go immediately to his masked portrayor, John Carroll Lynch. Here’s an actor that knows not only how to use his hulking physique to great effect but knows how to fill the silences in such an unnerving way. He snorts and snarls more beast than man and his movements are so sudden and swift they leave victims little time for recourse. Plus choosing to first show Twisty’s particular ‘act’ on a bright sunny day really screws with the expectation of something looking like that only living in the shadows. The light of day won’t save you from this killer clown. Hopefully his backstory won’t take away from the character’s mystique as being able to inspire such unease is an asset a horror show needs to be able to call on without it being lessened as the series goes on. Twisty has to remain a true threat. 

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Just as the suspension of disbelief is essential for the performers in a sideshow to set a tone and create illusion and wonder, Murphy and his talented team have created a gauzily-lit dreamscape filled with portrayals of the outwardly strange and impossible feats.  Despite the fact that a great deal of special effects go into the presentation of Paulson as a duo, about halfway through the episode I thought of Bette and Dot as fully-realized characters and not Sarah talking to herself with a fake head strapped to her shoulder.  That’s because this season is going to be strongly character-based and that’s when American Horror Story is at its very best. Even if the plot goes a bit sideways or if too many things get thrown against the wall just to see what sticks, having strong well-defined characters keeps this show a afloat. The slower rollout of character introductions and small handful of reveals hopefully mean that the storytelling can remain at least a little restrained. Just for the first part of the season. Then hopefully things go into overdrive but by then we care so greatly about these characters and what happens to them that it will harrow our very souls to stay on this journey with them. After such a strong premiere I’m eager for an encore of this freak show. 

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