Penny (Grace Gummer), a mean-spirited candy striper in the small town of Jupiter, Florida, first encounters Fraulein Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) as one might a Disney villain. Sporting a ghastly fur stole over her crimson suit and lighting up a Lucky Strike in the hospital corridor, Elsa somehow channels both Cruella de Vil and Ingrid Bergman, winning Penny’s trust with the promise of Continental glamour.
By the end of the first episode of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” however, the promise sours. As a blue movie starring none other than Penny herself unspools on the titular act’s big tent, Elsa lets loose a memorable screed against “normalcy” itself. “I’ll tell you who the monsters are! The people outside this tent!” she tells the young woman. “You, undoubtedly, will be one of those soulless monsters. Perhaps you already are.”
An insane and insanely enjoyable portrait of the monsters in our midst, “Freak Show” filters the moral revulsion of Tod Browning (director of 1932 cult classic “Freaks”) through the colorful prism of Douglas Sirk, populating its vision of postwar Americana with physically disfigured circus performers and spiritually deformed citizens. As we’ve come to expect from series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the new season throws everything but the kitchen sink at society’s insiders and outsiders, arriving at a melodramatic, sympathetic, and highly stylized understanding of all the ways difference is policed, and of how those left on the margins try to rise up in resistance. As campy, high-velocity genre fare, “Freak Show” is all in good fun — but as an allegory for the prison of suburban conformity, it’s an American horror story, indeed.
Elsa turns up in the “secure wing” of Jupiter’s hospital to entice conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) to come aboard her struggling “Cabinet of Curiosities,” and their initial conversation establishes a frank interest in queer sexuality that permeates the first two episodes. “Has anyone tasted your cherry pie?” she ventures brazenly, as Bette the skeptic and Dot the naïf telepathically communicate their responses. (The attempt to highlight their individual perspectives in an array of split screen combinations is not deployed consistently enough to be effective, but if you’re expecting directorial consistency from Ryan Murphy, you’ve come to the wrong place.)
There’s also a three-breasted hermaphrodite (Angela Bassett) and her angry strongman husband (Michael Chiklis), not to mention Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters), who brings in money by pleasuring dissatisfied women at afternoon Tupperware parties with his massive, claw-like hands. “This new product is a lifesaver for the American housewife,” the hostess proclaims. In “Freak Show” the deadening force of the normative is always colliding with the lively energy of the strange, producing a tremendous subversive spark.
To this end, while “Freak Show” alludes to the famed “one of us” line from Browning’s classic “Freaks” (1932), it transforms the performers’ chant into a revolutionary mantra. “Kill the copper!” they cry over supper in the encampment one night, before staging a sit-in of sorts at a Jupiter diner the next day: wrestling with a mess of ideas about coming out, civil disobedience, and political violence, “AHS” remains an ardently ideological series dressed up in Hollywood glitz. It’s way too much and then some — there’s a subplot involving a serial killer, a childlike sociopath (Finn Wittrock), and his overbearing mother (Frances Conroy) that resembles something like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” — but it’s vitally, radically way too much, a vivid, bloody stab at the conventions of mainstream serial drama in its own right.
And so “Freak Show” may be forgiven for flagging slightly in the second hour, slowed by its jungle of characters, narrative devices, aesthetic influences, and nods at pop culture, because it’s the rare series that allows all of us freaks a turn in the spotlight. The season premiere culminates in an anachronistic and deliriously brilliant musical homage to David Bowie, with a batshit star turn by Jessica Lange that I could scarcely imagine anywhere else on television. The sequence is glittering, surreal, and proudly out-of-place, much like the series itself. Indeed, in embracing the queer and rejecting the orthodox, “AHS: Freak Show” is anything but monstrous: it has soul.
“American Horror Story: Freak Show” premieres Wednesday at 10pm on FX.