The dirty little secret of the horror genre is that its appeal has as much to do with the lure of the familiar as it does the shock of the gory new. How many times will we see Dr. Frankenstein bend over a stitched-together corpse or Dracula lean in for a taste of some jugular juice? How else to explain that Jason and Freddy are like Beyoncé, icons whose success has rid them of the need for that cumbersome appendage, a last name?
All of which brings us to American Horror Story: Freak Show. This is the fourth self-contained terror-drama from Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and, as such, faces a near impossible task of trying to compete with the game-changing nature of its debut season. Wisely, the showrunners seem content to once more shuffle their deck of cards in a manner that exploits our increasing awareness of and fondness for the assorted kings, knaves, and, in particular, queens it contains.
Freak Show‘s setting is ’50s Jupiter, Fla., a burg terrorized by a string of killings and abductions that begin not long after the titular band of carnival folk pitches its tents nearby. Among the troupe are several characters played to campy perfection by AHS vets, including Jessica Lange’s fame-obsessed ringmaster Elsa Mars, Sarah Paulson’s argumentative conjoined twins, and Evan Peters’ ”Lobster Boy,” who uses his elongated digits to pleasure local females—and not by making hand shadow puppets. In the second episode, Coven star Angela Bassett arrives to slinkily portray the wife of show newbie Michael Chiklis’ strongman, and the latter does indeed prove a strong man—a hierarchical threat to Elsa, who is determined to hold on to her top-dog position. This echo of Lange’s Coven character is as loud as a carnival barker’s shout, but it’s still enjoyable—if you’re bored watching Lange go bananas, then you’re probably bored with life. The episode also sees Finn Wittrock’s ennui-stricken rich kid strike up an unholy alliance with a grotesque killer clown, whose portrayal by John Carroll Lynch should not be underestimated because of its masked, muted nature.
This ground has been covered before, most notoriously in director Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, with its ultimately terrifying refrain, ”One of us!” Murphy and Falchuk pay homage to that movie while skillfully mixing fresh aspects with the familiar. AHS may no longer have the element of surprise on its side, but it remains, to quote the lyrics of a certain David Bowie tune performed by Lange, the freakiest show. One of us? Count me in. B+