The freakiest thing about “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is that it didn’t happen sooner. The FX horror anthology may have launched with the tale of a dysfunctional family moving into a haunted house, but, like so much of co-creator Ryan Murphy’s work, the franchise quickly found its true calling through the exploration and celebration of society’s outcasts. So it’s no surprise that after “Asylum” and “Coven” comes “Freak Show,” the most blatant illustration yet of that unofficial mission statement. Judging by the first two episodes made available for review, the ’50s-set “Freak Show” also signals a return to the darkly shaded period melodrama of “Asylum,” rather than the campier and largely contemporary “Coven.” While that could be seen as a risk — considering “Coven” garnered the show’s highest ratings and most Emmy wins to date — “Horror Story” has always thrived on taking chances.
Of course, it’s easier to take those risks when you’ve got the talent to back them up, something “Horror Story” continues to prove as home to one of the smallscreen’s most enviable acting ensembles.
That’s why it seems especially perverse that the hourlong premiere episode (airing in a super-sized 90-minute timeslot with commercials) spends more than half of its running time with just three main cast members: leading lady Jessica Lange as freak show proprietor and German expat Elsa Mars; perpetually underrated Evan Peters as Elsa’s right-hand man Jimmy Darling, aka “Lobster Boy,” thanks to his fused together fingers; and, most impressively, Sarah Paulson in the dual role of conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (a minor coup of visual effects and even greater achievement of carefully nuanced acting).
After discovering the Tattlers’ existence in a local Florida newspaper, Elsa sets about to convince the telepathic twosome to join her traveling show (dubbed “Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities”). The offer excites starry-eyed Bette far more than uptight Dot, but despite having minds and hearts of their own, they don’t exactly enjoy a variety of career options.
Elsa, meanwhile, sees a gold mine, which is precisely what she needs at a time when public interest in “freaks” has all but evaporated due to the increasing popularity of television. (Though it’s not explicitly mentioned, many U.S. states had already dismissed so-called freak shows as exploitative relics by the time of the series’ 1952 setting. Michigan even passed a law in 1931 banning the “exhibition of deformed human beings.”)
The premiere’s most significant subplot involves homicidal clown Twisty (John Carroll Lynch, a special guest star making a vivid impression), a mute monster operating independently of the freak show, and responsible for an ongoing rampage that’s terrorizing the area. With his hulking form, dingy attire and oversized permanent joker grin, Twisty is a fully formed nightmare the moment he steps onscreen. This sinister creation puts the horror back in “Horror Story,” and runs neck and neck (and neck) with Paulson’s Tattler twins as “Freak Show’s” most intriguing breakout character.
That’s partly because it’s going to take more time to get to know most everyone else. The premiere introduces entitled society lady Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) and her warped son Dandy (Finn Wittrock), but the despicable duo don’t really begin to come into focus until episode two. That’s also when the audience meets strongman Dell Toledo (FX vet but “Horror Story” newcomer Michael Chiklis) and his three-breasted hermaphrodite paramour Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett, in fine augmented form). Additional series regulars Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts apparently won’t arrive until episode three at the earliest.
Despite talk of Lange’s pending departure, for now “Horror Story” still belongs to her. Having recently picked up her second Emmy for the series, she continues to surprise with radically different characterizations each year. With her thick accent and (presumably one-sided) Marlene Dietrich rivalry, Elsa initially comes off as more cartoonish and less complex than Lange’s previous turns (especially compared with the sensational work Paulson delivers in her challenging and exceptionally showy roles).
That changes for the better once Lange lays bare the vulnerability beneath Elsa’s hardened exterior in a few poignant scenes, including an intimate discussion with bearded lady pal, Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates, the show’s other recent Emmy winner) and an impassioned stage performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” (Anachronistic musical numbers might be a running thing this season — Paulson puts a killer spin on Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in episode two.)
The deliberate pacing and carefully doled out details in the first two episodes contribute to the sense that viewers may be in for an unusually single-minded season of “Horror Story,” though it’s probably wise not to assume anything this early on. After all, what seems important at the outset of any given installment may not matter a bit by the finale. The “Coven” premiere pivoted on a horrifying gang rape that was nothing but a bad, fuzzy memory by the end, while “Asylum” introduced an extraterrestrial subplot that never quite jelled with its otherwise chilling examination of the evil that men do.
Then again, that kind of roller-coaster unpredictability has become the show’s hallmark. Where too many TV series become stale after a season or two, “Horror Story” has a proven ability to transform itself — not just season to season, but also episode to episode and sometimes even scene to scene — built into its creative DNA. Don’t like what they’re doing right now? Just wait till next year.