Halloween is upon us once again which means that it is inevitably time for another season of American Horror Story. The team behind Nip/Tuck and Glee brought us the first season of the genre series back in 2011 with Murder House. AHS: Murder House featured Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton as the Harmons, a family on the brink of collapse and looking for a new start, who unwittingly moved in to a Hollywood home with a very bad history. The season that ensued was filled with sex, violence and scares, introduced actors Dennis O’Hare, Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters into the mainstream and reintroduced Jessica Lange into the public consciousness. Lange, an Academy Award winner twice over, stole the show as Constance Langdon, a faded starlet, single mother and neighbor-from-hell (literally).
The first season also had heart, something I would argue that has been lacking from the subsequent seasons, with Murder House seeing Constance struggle with the shortcomings of her children and accept that the life she wanted was not the life she ended up with, the evil that Tate was capable of committing, the hopelessness of teenage Violet, the entitlement of Ben Harmon and the suffocation of his wife Vivian. Murder House had a voice that was loud, unafraid and in your face. It deconstructed the idea of fame and glamour, addressed desperation and psychosis, anger and fear. It was an upsetting and unflinching stare down of a culture pretending like everything is OK when it most definitely is not but is too ashamed to address its problems.
The success of Murder House led to a second season featuring a slew of A-list actors, an expanded cast and a bonkers advertising campaign. It was also announced that American Horror Story would be an anthology series, leaving the story from the previous season behind and starting up again with a brand new tale. While many of the actors have returned, they play different parts in each season, thus forming an AHS repertory company of sorts. American Horror Story: Asylum, the follow up to Murder House, featured Lange front and center as Sister Jude, headmistress of Briarcliff Manor, and subplots including Nazi doctors, zombies, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, a dance sequence to “The Name Game,” demonic possession, gay rights, a psycho killer named “Bloody Face,” sexual abuse, angels, the Catholic church and, oh yeah, aliens. Aliens!!!
Needless to say, as a die hard fan of the first season, I was incredibly disappointed in Asylum, but there are plenty of folks out there who would argue that it was an improvement on its predecessor. Viewership increased and James Cromwell won an Emmy for his performance. The third installment was last year’s Coven, which centered around a group of witches in New Orleans. The series also added Academy Award winner Kathy Bates and Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett to the cast. While I would say that Coven was an improvement on Asylum, many fans still found the third season unfocused and with little follow through. Despite the fan reactions, Lange managed to pick up a Best Actress Emmy for her work and announced that the fourth season of the genre series would be her last.
So where does that leave us now? American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres tonight on FX and I have to say, my expectations are incredibly low. While the promotional materials are gorgeous and the premise is strong, American Horror Story feels more like a variety show from the ’60s than the horror powerhouse it started out as. I love Murder House because it did everything that I think good horror should do: it used the things that scare us the most as an allegory providing social commentary. In the case of Murder House, the issue was the breakdown of the American nuclear family and the so-called American Dream. Plus, it was scary as hell and still managed to have a bit of flash and a dash of camp for good measure.
From where I’m sitting, all of the things that Asylum touched on could have made for incredibly powerful television but instead the series drank its own Kool Aid and ultimately couldn’t be bothered to follow through on the promises that the premise of the second season made. While Coven was a step in the right direction from a storytelling perspective, the metaphors for the destruction caused by a patriarchal society as well as the legacy of racism in the American south were ultimately subverted by the temptation to have Stevie Nicks serenading the women of Miss Robichaux’s Academy with a rendition of “Seven Wonders.” I’m not saying there isn’t room for a little fun on the show but I also think that American Horror Story is guilty of selling itself as something dark and provocative when in actuality the show has become something palatable and, at times, possibly exploitative.
So, yes, Freak Show has all the makings of a new horror classic. Tragic archetypes, scary clowns, potential metaphors out of the wazoo, a cast that’s stacked — but will it ultimately rise to the occasion? That all remains to be seen starting tonight at 10PM, on on FX.