Step right up and see the craziest show on television

By Tom Gliatto
Updated October 08, 2014 07:00 PM
Michele K. Short/FX

It seems pretty safe to say that Kathy Bates probably never expected to play a bearded lady, let alone one with a broad Canadian accent. Or that Sarah Paulson aspired to play a woman with two heads – the one on the right puritanically grim and skeptical, the one on the left a bit dippy and worshipful of movie stars.

But anything goes on American Horror Story, starting its fourth season, Freak Show.

Everything goes.

This new incarnation of the series stars Jessica Lange, the anchor of every season so far, as Elsa Mars, a failed German actress who runs a barely surviving traveling sideshow in the early 1950s.

She and her entourage of human curiosities, including a young man with lobster-claw hands and a woman no taller than a shoe box, have pitched their few tents outside Jupiter, Florida.

Drumming up business is a challenge. The local authorities aren’t encouraging, and the townspeople are inclined to stay indoors at night: Just as Elsa’s show has arrived in town, so has a maniac killer clown. He has a sutured forehead and a skull’s grin.

And yet, if you suffer from clown phobia, he’s less upsetting than an actual clown. It’s nice, the few times he sculpts a balloon.

Twisty – which is how the character is identified on IMDB – seems to be operating independently of Elsa, but the plots on AHS always take wild leaps and make wilder connections. It will probably turn out that, back in Germany, he and Elsa performed in an infernal cabaret for Nazi officers on “leather” nights. Or he may have been her manny. Who knows?

The first few episodes are, in fact, relatively restrained, especially compared to the revolting gore that launched last year’s Coven. The sideshow theme, which inevitably harks back to Freaks, the notorious 1931 horror movie, doesn’t have the same meaning for a modern audience. What was once treated with revulsion and perhaps condemned as the sins of the fathers visited upon their children is now understood in terms of genetics and medicine and is protected and accommodated by law.

And documented on reality television.

That leaves a viewer to enjoy instead the show’s always adventurous performers as they act out, at least initially, a bottom-of-the-barrel allegory about the vagaries and narcissism of Hollywood – what Lange’s Elsa, purring with an accent that recalls Marlene Dietrich, refers to as a “long and complicated affair with show business.”

Elsa, who fears that fame has eluded her forever, weeps with shame after she hires Bette and Dot (Paulson) out of a desperate hope that a new headliner will bring in people to hear her sing. Elsa also hires a new barker named Dell (Michael Chiklis), a strongman out of Chicago. He arrives with the beautiful, three-breasted Desiree (Angela Bassett). Tony promotes Bette and Dot, all right, but kicks Elsa’s name down to the bottom of the bill. Elsa no like.

And then Bette and Dot, who have never been in complete or even approximate harmony, are further unsettled by the spotlight. Are they about to begin descending into a one-woman, two-headed version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

If we’re lucky, yes.

The most aberrant yet natural thing in all humanity, perhaps, is the desire to be a star.

American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres Wednesday (10 p.m. ET) on FX.

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