An Appreciation and a Critique
I will give just about any new television show a chance. There is a certain amount of excitement inherent in discovering what a new collection of creative individuals has in store, what they have been able to come up with. Of course, there are always disappointments ... every season unleashes an assortment of shows so bad they make you shake your head in wonderment.
With the success of "Glee" under their belts, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk next turned their attention to "American Horror Story", a series conceived as an anthology of sorts - each season would feature a different tale set in a different place with many of the same actors appearing in different roles. There are a number of reasons why this was initially so interesting and showed so much promise; "Glee" was a unusual project to bring to network television and it worked (at least for a while), and the next project promised to be even more different, even more far away from the norm, and it was going to be on the cable channel FX which meant they would be able to take the already unusual stories and push the barriers they had to deal with on Fox. It meant that "American Horror Story" might actually be legitimately scary because they wouldn't have to resort to PG-rated scare tactics (black cats jumping in front of screaming girls, etc.) - there might be some blood, there might be some gore, there might be some suspense.
When "Horror" premiered, my husband and I eagerly tuned in and became hooked. Murphy and Falchuk created a great mythology for the family (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Taissa Farmiga) and the big, spooky house they moved into, relocating to modern day Los Angeles. Add a strange maid (Frances Conroy), a strange neighbor lost in her heyday (Jessica Lange) and her son's ghost (Evan Peters) and things started to get scary and weird very quickly. With each episode, the filmmakers seemed to take us to a different place, challenging us with a new aspect of the story, which might include a flashback to paint in some of the details of the house's other inhabitants. Then, they introduced the man in the rubber suit, smashing any misconceptions we may have had that this show could ever be seen on a network.
When "American Horror Story" became a success, and season two was given the green light, we began to get more details about how this series was going to work, including the Mercury Radio aspect of the casting. Season 2 would be set in an asylum on the Eastern seaboard in the 60s. Many of the actors would return alongside some new faces, including Joseph Fiennes as a beleaguered Catholic priest and James Cromwell as a doctor with a very, very sketchy past. When season 2 was announced, season 1 earned the subtitle "House". Season 2 became "Asylum".
And "Asylum" is disappointing. It isn't scary enough and too much of the story concerns Kyle's (Evan Peters) possible interactions with aliens. The various story lines aren't really tied together as well either.
The season begins in modern day with an amorous couple (singer Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Channing's wife) breaking into the broken-down asylum to explore. They soon run into Leatherface, a homicidal killer who may have lived in the building since the 60s. Flashing back, we meet many of the residents of the asylum run by Sister Jude (Lange) and Monsignor Timothy Howard (Fiennes) and Dr. Arthur Arden (Cromwell). A plucky newspaper reporter (Sarah Paulson) enters the asylum to try to write an expose, but her sexual predilections lead to her internment. Zachary Quinto plays another doctor who arrives to try to help improve the conditions at the asylum. But her proves largely ineffective.
Throughout all of this, they seem to dance around the identity of Leatherface. And the whole alien abduction thing, while germane to the period, doesn't really connect.
So season 2 was pretty disappointing, but because of the strength of season 1, I wasn't prepared to write the whole thing off. I was eager and ready for season 3.
"Coven" renewed my faith in the series.
Set in modern day New Orleans, Cordelia Foxx (Paulson) runs a school for witches. She is struggling to keep the storied institution afloat and to keep the few students (Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer) she has, safe and strong, teaching her girls how to use and handle their powers. Cordelia's mother, Fiona Goode (Lange) returns because she has heard that a new witch is present who will be able to take over the coven. But Fiona, who is very sick, isn't ready to give up control. This leads her to seek out an 18th-century slave owner, Madame Lalurie (Kathy Bates), resurrecting her from the dead. Sort of. And Fiona tries to broker a truce with Madame Laveau (Angela Bassett), a Voodoo priestess, bringing an end to their long feud. Add in a college jock (Evan Peters) who dies and gets reanimated by two of the student witches (Farmiga and Roberts) and a guest appearance by singer Stevie Nicks and the story goes to wild, wild places.
I was excited because "Coven" made “AHS” scary again and featured a thought-out mythology connecting most of the characters back to one another. The setting of New Orleans and the story of Madame Lalurie also helped to make the entire season more memorable. But really, this was the icing on the cake.
When season 4 was announced, it seemed like the perfect combination of setting, time period and creepiness and promised to be another memorable season.
Having just aired the final episode of the season 4, I gotta say that it is another disappointment. "Freak Show", set at a traveling freak show camped out in Florida in the mid 50s, promised everything that made the other series work - creepy - killer clown, a strange assortment of characters living and working at the freak show, a straight-laced and close-knit society reluctant to embrace the traveling circus and an heiress (Conroy) and her troubled adult son, Dandy (Finn Witrock, “Unbroken”).
There are significant problems with "Freak Show". The first of which is that one of the most interesting characters is killed off way, way too early. The idea is that he unwittingly passes the mantle to Dandy, helping the crazy young man realize his potential and begin his own life as a homicidal maniac. But he is too obvious from the word “Go!” There is no surprise or shock when the spoiled rich boy takes up the mantle. Some of his acts are surprising. Dandy is well-illustrated but he just doesn't have the impact of the earlier villain. And because we see his evolution and the acts he commits, there is no mystery as to who the killer is.
In addition to Michael Chiklis joining the cast as the strong man who has a connection to Kathy Bates' bearded woman and her son, the young man with lobster claw hands, played by Evan Peters, a number of people make guest appearances. Wes Bentley is the most successful of these guest stars, playing a bad spirit who appears whenever a vaudeville act performs on Halloween. All of the freaks know him and fear him. He is most successful because the show takes some time to establish his backstory, giving him a mythology. The most recognizable? Matt Bomer makes an appearance as a gay man who decides to go out on a date with the wrong guy. Bomer's appearance is good and limited to one episode, so it only provides a mild distraction. Neil Patrick Harris shows up late in the series as a ventriloquist with a past who decides to buy the freak show as a showcase for his act. Harris' appearance doesn't do the narrative any favors. It seems to send the story on the wrong course, making the story seem more fragmented than it already is. It is a distraction and detracts from the overall effect of the story. It also doesn't seem to have a lot of purpose because he doesn't even carry through to the end.
Because of the decision to kill off the most scary character so early, the story loses a lot of the intensity it might otherwise have had. There are some nice touches; watching Dandy's evolution is interesting, especially as he is portrayed as sort of an early version of so many other homicidal maniacs. The story of Dandy and his mother (played by "AHS" stalwart Francis Conroy) is also a nice touch, and there are a lot of fun references throughout to the time period.
But this isn't enough to make "Freak Show" as interesting or compelling as "House" or "Coven".
Given the precedent Murphy seems to be establishing, next season should be great. Stay tuned.