If you’re as addicted to American Horror Story as most people I know, last night’s fourth season opener — which, like previous incarnations, follows its own new arc as a limited-run series — probably didn’t disappoint.
This cycle, called Freak Show, owes a lot to Tod Browning’s classic 1932 film Freaks which shows the grotesque and the tender side-by-side, down to the bearded lady (Kathy Bates, affecting a deliciously uncategorizable accent), the Siamese twins (two-headed Sarah Paulson, who may be eligible in both the leading and supporting actress Emmy categories), the tiny person and, natch, the clown … who, in this instance, makes Pennywise seem as harmless as Ronald McDonald. (If the image of that grinning skull-headed killer clown doesn’t freak you out more than Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, you’ve a stronger constitution that I have. I even waited until this morning to watch the damn thing, as I get easily frightened by toothy murderers in blood-stained yarn-ball tops.)
This is all par for the course with Ryan Murphy, who revels in the unsustainably exaggerated imagery of horror and musical-comedy, which can often be the same thing. While less sexy than Coven (the third cycle), Freak Show‘s lack of subtlety is one of its appeals. Who would ever attend a circus whose entrance was a fanged, grinning face designed more to terrify than to entice? When brutal murders start occurring in the 1952 backwater of Jupiter, Fla., who else would be the chief suspects other than an itinerant band of carnies (something the local police force seems slow to pick up on)? What pair of lovers would have a scary clown walk toward they and say “Hello” rather than run screaming in the opposite direction?
But there’s heart here, as well as gruesomeness. Jessica Lange plays Elsa, the German emigree ringleader of this pathetic traveling circus who is obsessed by stardom and glamour and imagines herself to be P.T. Barnum mixed with Marlene Dietrich. When she sings her number to welcome the milquetoast young man and his domineering mom (Frances Conroy) to the opening night of the show, it’s both wonderful and sad. That’s how most editions of American Horror Story play out: Only bad can come with good.