If you haven't been watching American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, 10 p.m. Wednesday and on-demand), then you should be. It is visually sublime, camp, arch, unsteady and at times outrageously funny. Yes, all that.
The synopsis is this: "One of the only surviving sideshows in the country struggles to stay in business during the dawning era of television." Take note of that, the mention of television. There's a lot going on in this, the fourth instalment of the anthology series made by Ryan Murphy and sidekick Brad Falchuk, creators of Glee and Nip/Tuck. Much of what's going on, as before, is utterly depraved.
And as before, there is a stellar cast. Murphy and Falchuk are able to lure Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson back to their lurid stories time after time. In this one, you can add Michael Chiklis and Grace Gummer, the latter being the daughter of Meryl Streep. (My, does her character have a wicked journey.) Little wonder – the material is both exquisite and mad.
It's 1952 in Jupiter, Fla. Boring place. Housewives "stupefied with boredom" sit around complaining about their husbands. One says, "Every Thursday night at 9 p.m. he turns on Dragnet and climbs on top of me." And, as it happens, a lad named Lobster Boy (Evan Peters) can take care of the boredom. He's from a local sideshow owned and operated by one German expat named Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange). The sideshow, with its Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates) and other "curiosities," or freaks, has fallen on hard times. As the Bearded Lady explains: "Thanks to Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, people are getting their jollies at home now."
Then Elsa hits gold. She discovers conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson, in an astonishing, virtuoso role) who are already guilty of murdering their mom, and Elsa plans to revive her show by making Bette and Dot the stars. As it happens, one of them is kind of smitten with showbiz already.
Nobody can outdo Lange (Emmy-winner for a previous American Horror Story series) in the delivery of arch dialogue. Told not to smoke at a hospital, she tells the nurse, "It's fine. It's a Lucky Strike, it's good for you." Assessing Bette and Dot, she teases out their complex desires and drawls, "Has anyone tasted your cherry pie?" Meanwhile, there's a murderous clown prowling the area and stashing witnesses in a cabin in the woods.
It all adds up to an often demented but compelling excursion into sex, showbiz and mockery of convention.
Few can craft this kind of singularly outrageous yet serious-minded TV like Ryan Murphy. There is, at times, little subtlety. At one point Lobster Boy declares he wants out of the freak-show racket and announces: "All we ever wanted was a place where we could feel safe and be just the way we are." The point is made too often that the so-called "normal" people are the ones who are truly creepy, with their hidden, base desires and malformed attitudes. In this, American Horror Story repeats many of the themes of Tod Browning's classic movie Freaks.
Still, it pokes away at a multitude of themes in a unique manner. The arrival of television spooks the old-school freak show just as it spooked the movie industry and all other entertainment. The first impulse of those frightened by TV was to be ever more garish and shocking and, in that, they seemed desperate. Of course there is also Murphy's core theme – one explored relentlessly in Glee – of the need to embrace those people who are different and difficult. Simultaneously, he calls on those who are considered "different" to stand up and celebrate their unique qualities.
Each season of American Horror Story tends to go off the rails or expand into unexpected vistas, depending on your approach to it and tolerance. To some critics, the third instalment, Coven, fell apart, while I thought it maintained a lovely, funny, erotic charge and was gloriously capricious to the end.
This outing is as depraved, maddening and gorgeous as its freak-show characters. It's a bracing walk on the wild side – just go with it and watch.