American Horror Story: Freak Show is the fourth season of this anthology series. The first season, probably its best, Murder House, was a fresh, slick story of murder and mayhem in a family’s new house and initiated Dylan McDermott and Jessica Lange to television audiences. Subsequent seasons were never quite as original although they maintained a following and generous reviews. The latest offering in this anthology, Freak Show, loses its distinction as a platform for a great acting ensemble, peeling off a weak story line every episode and introducing real-life handicapped people whom the series has labeled and headlined as freaks.
“Freak” is a word never used when referring to the severely handicapped, like those depicted in the series, unless you have been in a bubble for the past forty years. The men and women labeled “freaks” in this series are severely handicapped individuals who deserve more than the exploitation that people with similar disabilities endured in order to make a living in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Although casting in this series has afforded these men and women an opportunity act in a television series, it is still hard to believe that they are not being exploited even if they do not think that they are. Mat Fraser who plays Paul, the Illustrated Seal in the series, knows he is being exploited and gives an almost totally convincing argument that he accepts his exploitation, in fact, he states that his appearance cannot help but be exploited, and that he and others like him are “entertaining with their radical difference.” His interview on this is heartwarming and sincere but one is inclined to question whether American Horror Story’s exploitation is any more than the circus tents that exploited people like him a century ago.
Ironically, the 1932 film, Freaks, was less exploitative in hindsight but just as explosive, especially for its time.
“Pinhead” character from 1932 film, Freaks, on the left. “Pepper” from American Horror Story on the right
The exploitation of these special people is not the only failing of this season of American Horror Story. Though Jessica Lange remains outstanding, able to pivot from one character to the next, season after season, and Frances Conroy makes everyone’s acting better, most of the returning actors are beginning to wear on me. I have never understood the casting of Evan Peters, especially after the first season since there was nothing particularly special about his performance that called for him returning, and continuing to return, to this ensemble. Angela Basset seems to be just reprising her role from The Coven last season and Michael Chiklis is a wasted talent, perhaps too eager to join a series with story lines that were weaker season after season. Kathy Bates holds her own, as expected, but if any actor has gotten better with each season it is Sarah Paulson who gives a captivating performance as the two headed woman Bette and Dot Tattler.
Jessica Lange has said this is her last season and hopefully so. Her talents are genuinely in a league of their own and hopefully she will return to cable television with haste. The story lines are ultimately what is ruining what was a novel idea. Now, I am just tired of looking at the same group of people, even though this season they have two heads, webbed hands and three breasts, getting paid to exploit people who live with real impairments they pretend to have.