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Sunday, October 19, 2014

TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ – ‘Massacres and Matinees’

Article first published as TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ – ‘Massacres and Matinees’ on Blogcritics.

TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ – ‘Massacres and Matinees’

The latest miniseries in the American Horror Story franchise, Freak Show, presents, this week, “Massacres and Matinees.” The people of Jupiter are suspicious of the freaks camped just outside of town as more bodies pile up.  Strongman Dell Toldeo (Michael Chiklis, The Shield), on the run after killing a man in Chicago, offers to keep the carnival safe, and given an inch, he takes a mile. This is much to the dismay of Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), who doesn’t know he’s Toldeo’s son, and whom thinks he can protect this family on his own. Neither seems to understand the threat brewing, though, when the real killer gets a dangerous new partner.

One thing that strikes me about American Horror Story: Freak Show so far, is that the freaks, those who look abnormal make people uncomfortable, are pretty darn sympathetic. The show almost skews too much this way, hitting us over the head that these are ‘normal people,’ while showing just how monstrous normal-seeming they are. Whether it’s a bratty rich boy with a sadistic streak or judgmental diner customers, the most “average” freaks are the ones of whom to be aware.

This is both important and preachy. Creator Ryan Murphy is all about inclusiveness–and portraying the disabled as strong personalities with much to contribute, very obvious in his network dramedy Glee. It’s a laudable goal, and he’s done much to further the cause. But at the same time, he doesn’t have to hit us over the head quite so heavily. Most viewers are intelligent, and we can form our own opinions without the lectures.

Still, despite the preachiness, or perhaps because of it, American Horror Story: Freak Show is shaping up to be terrific, with wonderful characters. When Jimmy takes a group to the diner and they are kicked out, we feel their pain. As Elsa (Jessica Lange) grows jealous of talented up-and-comers Dot and Bette (both Sarah Paulson), we feel her jealousy and desperation. Ethel’s (Kathy Bates) desire to keep her ex, Dell, away from her son, whom she loves and protects, is quite compelling. Similarly, it’s easy to feel for mother Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy), who would really like a grandbaby but is saddled with a difficult son, to put it mildly. These are all fully realized individuals, played by very strong performers, and along with the rest of the cast, to which Angela Bassett (AHS: Coven), playing a humorous hermaphrodite, is added this week, they sell this series well.meep

The first of the band dies in “Massacres and Matinees,” as Dell thwarts Jimmy’s attempt to frame him for murder and shifts the blame to Meep the Geek (Ben Woolf). Meep is arrested and slain by his fellow inmates. As disturbing as I find Meep, especially when he is shown biting off bird heads, his passing is moving, both because of the grief he sparks in Jimmy, and because he’s an innocent who doesn’t deserve what happens. I can’t say I’ll miss him exactly, but his demise is masterfully crafted for impact.

As we fall in love with the freaks, viewers still get their fright from Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). Wittrock is a stand-out surprise in American Horror Story: Freak Show, and his arc really takes off in “Massacres and Matinees.” As the rich kid who wants to find his place and uses demented means to do so, he creates a monster that is truly terrifying. As Dandy joins forces with creepy clown, Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), the two make a beautifully twisted, unexpected pair that will cause much havoc in Jupiter. I’m not sure where their story is going, but the scenes between them are intense and well-crafted, definitely among the best moments of the hour.

There are just a few things that puzzle me about “Massacres and Matinees.” Why does Elsa kowtow to Dell so easily? Sure, his masculine energy may be attractive to her, but she’s been in charge a long time, and she doesn’t seem the type to give up so easily, a conclusion echoed when she indicates multiple times that he displeases her. I’m also not sure why Dell frames Meep instead of Jimmy, whom he doesn’t seem to care about it, even with their blood connection. But overall, it’s pretty good, and I’m getting used to the musical numbers of songs not yet written in the time period the show takes place, 1952, now that it’s clearly a deliberate decision.

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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