This year's American Horror Story gave us a serial killer clown, a serial killer "song and dance man," two pinheads, a tattooed seal, a bearded lady, a three-breasted woman, a double amputee, a lobster-clawed bad-boy, a psychotic magician and his malicious dummy, a two-headed twin, a lizard lady, the smallest woman in the world, the tallest woman in the world, past and present and future decades, snuff flicks, a kid who eats chicken heads for fun, a man with a 13-inch dick -- about the only thing that wasn't actually exposed on the show -- S&M, tar and feathering, and mass murders that included the cutting off of limbs, slit throats, drowning, beheadings, shooting rampages, sawing a body in half, and buckets of blood And this was before the fat lady didn't sing. Kind of a surprise as many of the leads did.
Subtitled, appropriately, Freakshow, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk threw in almost every horror staple except the evil kitchen sink; they came close with a Tupperware Party massacre. But they did leave out one essential ingredient necessary for horror: Terror. For every sawed off limb or bullet to the brain or multiple stabbing, Freakshow never made your heart race or lead you to check under your bed or double bolt the door locks.
The only true pulse-racing scene from Season Four involved no gratuitous mutilation, no gunshots, and no blood. When the Strongman (Michael Chiklis) strangled Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), the scene worked because of what it didn't show: Gore. The buildup to her death, ending with the flicker of her tiny feet as she struggled for life against a reluctant killer, made us squeamish, holding our breath and hoping, desperately, that he'd change his mind and set her free.
Way before Janet Leigh stepped into Psycho's shower, the ability to scare viewers has usually required placing the audience in the victim's mind, triggering our own haunted visions of being terrorized, whether by a slow capture or a hidden stranger, or an unexplained bump in the night. If you take a young woman and place her in a magician's box and slice her in half so her guts spill out -- yeah, that happened, by a diabolically good Neil Patrick Harris, and it was displayed so graphically it could have been labeled gore-porn -- then we lose the fear and end up with nothing but a bellyache.
Had we been kept in the dark about that magic trick, either by not knowing if the murder would succeed or by shielding us from the crime, with a simple trickle of blood or reaction shots from the crowd, our mind could have played its own evil tricks. Alfred Hitchcock knew instinctively what American Horror Story has never understood, that implication is everything.
That's not to say that the critics, who are as rabid in their dislike of this season as Joni Ernst is to fact checkers, are correct in labeling Freakshow a disaster. Quite the opposite: It was a literal carnival of twisted fun, led by the marvelous Jessica Lange in a role so borderline camp any less of an actress would have turned it into the kind of Marlene Dietrich parody not seen since Madeline Kahn Lili Von Shtupp'ed us in Blazing Saddles. Each episode gave us an orgasm of art direction and staging, some wonderful performances (Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson are two, or perhaps three, further examples of the talent so common on AHS), and tongue-in-cheek homages to all the horror classics us freak geeks grew up watching.
Freakshow, rather, became the TV version of Madonna's Sex phase. (A couple of scenes even resembled the "Erotica" video.) Intentionally or not, Murphy and Falchuk have tried to outdo each year's season to such an extreme that the shocks are no longer shocking and the unpredictable is as predictable as the gore. Like Lady Gaga's Artpop, it was also hyped so much before its debut that anything short of the original Twin Peaks was bound to disappoint. Word to David Lynch: Don't get us too excited about the TP reboot until we've actually seen it.
In the need to provide a smorgasbord of thrills, the writers also lost their narrative. Season One had a fairly simple storyline of a somewhat unhappy family who unwittingly move into a haunted house. It had its problems, most notably that the two leads were one-dimensional and unlikable, and it had its pluses; cue Jessica Lange in what has still been her best role in the series. Season Two, Asylum, set in the 1960s, went way over the top with its monsters and aliens diversions, but it managed to tie up things up beautifully by the end, aided by a delicious Adam Levine-starring, modern-day framework horror movie staple. It was a brilliantly executed arc, and touched on the psychological horrors of homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church, and xenophobia in all its ugly, paranoid forms.
Coven, the series' third installment, is when the writing became the casualty. Set in modern-day New Orleans, the coven of witches started out as almost teen-horror flick fare, then tossed in Frankenstein's monster gone sexual amuck, zombies that were more "Thriller" than Walking Dead, and characters who died and came back to life so many times it was like watching Liza Minnelli's career. Considering the penchant for bringing in gay icons like Stevie Nicks and Patti Lupone, more for show than anything else, that analogy is more apt than it is bad pun.
Still, Coven, like the other three seasons, had great moments, and is a hundred times better than most horror movie offerings. Cinema's dummy Annabelle has nothing on Doogie's dummy Marjorie. As for TV, last summer's The Strain was pure B-movie stupidity, yet no one seems to be in an uproar about that zombie-vampire dud. "Pretty Girl" from season one, Kathy Bates' Obama TV watching and Jessica Lange's "Knotty Pine!" hellish end in Coven; the decadence is often as delicious as it is disturbing.
By the time Freakshow rolled into town, the show added yet another bizarre turn. Lange's Elsa Mars sang David Bowie's "Life on Mars," no matter that the show takes place in 1952 Florida. It was a seminal moment, defying every rule about what makes clever horror. They also brought in Twisty the Clown, who stabbed a happy couple in the park, via Zodiac, and a sweet, misunderstood young psychopath named Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Add sort-of Siamese twins Dot and Bette and those Brian De Palma Sisters split screens, and the story line looked like The Cyclone of theme park attractions.
The ride fell short after the Halloween episode, which culminated in Twisty's death, quickly turning into a hodgepodge of thriller clichés and meandering storylines that felt like they were written on the set, so many shocks and gory deaths, and enough red herrings to fill up the Everglades.
The murder of the police officer on Episode One never resolved, nor did the framing of Jimmy for the massacre he did not commit, the final Meep-ish fate of Stanley (he of the above-mentioned gigantic organ, which itself was merely a peepshow tease that served no other purpose than to simulate sight gags), even the need to bring in the fat lady, except to make up for other characters killed off too early.
The worst example of misguided horror had Matt Bomer make an appearance as a gay prostitute and the Strongman's love interest, who ends up as one of Dandy's too-many victims. Beginning with the here-out-of-place Roxy Music tune that almost absolved the imperative period motif needed for the time period, the scene played out like a spreadsheet.
Dandy meets hustler, Dandy flirts with hustler, Dandy takes hustler to the woods, Dandy makes hustler undress, Dandy stabs hustler multiple times, there is no time for registered fear or bewilderment or hope for hustler, Dandy dismembers hustler. Zero tension existed in the exchange between hunter and prey, and they could have taken a commercial break in between obligatory slasher shots. And used the extra buckets of blood for the next ten remakes of Carrie.
By the season finale, which began with Dandy murdering almost the entire cast -- now there's a quick fix to rid the writers of pesky denouement -- a storyline for Lange's Elsa Mars came full circle, which, satisfying or not, at least gave the impression that she was the one character who'd been pre-programmed in the creators' minds. Most of the other characters and plots were hacked off before their time, along with that wonderful split screen, and the songs. By the time Jimmy auto-tuned Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for no apparent reason, it was painfully clear that that motif needed to return to the land of those other freaks on Murphy's Glee.
Freakshow ended like that deserted, eerie Ferris Wheel that stood on the edge of the set and no one ever rode. It looked fantastic and you kept waiting for someone to take it for a spin, but it was ultimately an ornate piece of furniture that had no apparent reason for being there in the first place.
Before anyone gives up on the show's future, it pays to remember what the show did provide. In addition to keeping the horror movie genre alive and, if not well, than thriving, it employed several handicapped or otherwise physically limited actors who were great in their roles. It gave us Twisty and Dandy and Dot and Bette, a beautiful episode involving the fate of Pepper, and periodic scenes and segments that enticed and enthralled, and reminded us that the real freaks are so often the ones in charge of law and order and conventional wisdom.
By next season the backlash will have subsided, and the hype, hopefully, toned down, the audiences' expectations dimmed but not lost. The people behind the curtain of American Horror Story have been given the opportunity to do something unheard of in their pantheon of dread: Go back to basics, place the story in front of the pyrotechnics, and give us a magic trick that's at the center of all great horror; a scare so good we don't notice how it was done.