As a new-fangled little gadget called “television” sweeps 1950s America, circuses and their respective sideshows are on the verge of a steep decline. American Horror Story: Freak Show explores the consequences of the struggle between the old world and the new in determining the shape of America’s entertainment industry.
There are few shows with opening credits as worthy of dissection as American Horror Story and Freak Show’s atmospheric intro is no exception. Created by Kyle Cooper (responsible for the title sequences of both The Walking Dead and Se7en), the eerie carnival theme splices together circus imagery with children’s toys that are creepy in the fashion that only pseudo innocent vintage toys can be. The theme tune has been spruced up to include an ethereal circus twist too.
Episode 1 begins with a remote farmhouse, the scene of a grim discovery that leaves twin sisters Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) vulnerable to malice due to their unique appearance and unusual gift. Convinced the sisters will bring a fresh wave of interest to her failing business, it’s these traits that bring Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) to their hospital bed with the promise of asylum.
For Elsa’s troupe of unusual performers, the potential fall of the freak show presents devastating consequences: not just the loss of income, but also the familial protection of the clan. One thing is made abundantly clear from the very beginning: life on the road for Elsa’s performers isn’t easy, but it’s the only alternative to life as an outcast, locked in an institution or ostracised and left destitute. The horror here is not derived from the ‘freaks’ themselves but, like Tod Browning’s 1932 film, from the outside world by which they are shunned.
Episode 1 introduces the fresh carnival theme, 1950s setting and wholesome Floridian backdrop of Jupiter, an all-American suburban town thrown into terror by a string of murder-kidnappings. Coulrophobes, beware: the murderous, child-snatching clown (aptly named “Twisty”) who prowls Jupiter makes Tim Curry in It look like a slightly crabby Charlie Chalk.
Evan Peters reprises his three previous American Horror Story turns as series stud in the form of lobster-fingered Jimmy Darling, and it’s a delight to see Kathy Bates back onscreen for her second AHS innings, this time as the token bearded lady. Bates brings strength and heart as the matriarch to Jessica Lange’s cold and manipulative ringmaster, a contrast to Coven’s filicidal Madame La Laurie.
Lange herself appears to be placed in a somewhat familiar role of hardened anti-matriarch with a hidden vulnerability, and Frances Conroy is gone in the blink of a (fully-functional) eye.
The only unintentionally unsettling note is a slightly incongruous rendition of Life on Mars by David Bowie, which has a vague whiff of Glee about it: someone needs to slap the songbooks from creators’ Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy’s hands before musical inserts become the norm (Stevie Nicks’ appearance in Coven, naturally, gets a free pass). Following the unmitigated success of Season 4’s premiere in the US, though, a fifth has already been announced, which bodes well for the rest of Freak Show.
American Horror Story: Freak Show is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1, 2 and 3 are also available.