American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational but still sensitive

The new series takes us to back to 1952 and the small town of Jupiter, Florida where one of America’s last freak shows is struggling to survive

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The Independent Culture

Horror fans know what they like, though their tastes might mystify others. Since 2011, the gory, high-camp American Horror Story has been catering to those tastes just as Point Horror books did for nineties teens and The Twilight Zone did for fifties families.

In previous seasons, the anthology series has placed its repertory cast in a haunted house in California, a Massachusetts insane asylum and a witches coven in New Orleans. Now American Horror Story: Freak Show takes us to back to 1952 and the small town of Jupiter, Florida where one of America’s last freak shows is struggling to survive.

Jessica Lange’s glamorous, yet menacing matriarchs have stalked all three previous series and in Freak Show she’s Fräulein Elsa Mars, the Marlene Dietrich wannabe who runs the freak show to save her “monsters” from poverty. Other AHS stalwarts are back too; Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Bette and Dot, wanted for the murder of their mother, Kathy Bates is bearded lady Ethel Darling and Evan Peters is “lobster boy” Jimmy Darling.

The most interesting hirings, however, are the newbies. Freak Show’s ‘freaks’ include real performers with extraordinary bodies such as British actor Mat Fraser playing Paul the illustrated seal, and the world’s smallest woman Joyti Amge as Ma Petite.

 

The work of American Horror Story’s creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s has always concerned with what it means to be an outsider, their other hit shows include Glee, Nip/Tuck and Popular.

This, however, may be the series which most triumphantly marries their trademarks together. Tonight's opening episode climaxed with Elsa’s Glee-like rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Life in Mars’, cabaret style. By rights, it should have brought the house down, but since AHS never takes itself too seriously, Lange’s cross-series nemesis Frances Conroy, was on hand with another cutting zinger: “By far the most freakish thing of all tonight was your pathetic attempt at singing.”

Like the 1932 film Freaks which this series borrows from, AHS is capable of producing entertainment which is at once sensitive, silly and sensational. Exploitative? Perhaps, but so much else besides.

It says something that show’s main critics this time around are not from any disability rights groups, but from Clowns of America International. They object to the series’ new villain, Twisty the Clown, a coulrophobic’s nightmare who makes Pennywise from It look cuddly.

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