THE SHOW "American Horror Story: Freak Show"
WHEN|WHERE Wednesday night at 10 on FX
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In 1952, television is about to become king, which means a whole other world of popular entertainment is about to become toast -- or more specifically, the freak show, that bizarre and ancient form of amusement in which "biological human rarities" were paraded on stage for the masses. Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), proprietress of one such show, is seeking her version of a "killer app," or a rarity so bizarre that people just have to turn up at her own freak show to see it.
She believes she's found exactly that in conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson).
Meanwhile, a maniac is on the loose in the town of Jupiter, Florida, where brutally murdered victims are piling up and where Elsa's Freak Show just happens to have decamped. Could Elsa's Freak Show have something to do with this mayhem? And if Elsa is forced to pull up stakes, which some of the locals would very much like, where will she go and what will happen to her beloved other stars, like Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), the Bearded Lady, or her son with the very special hands, Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters)?
Oh, right, just in case you were wondering: Emma Roberts is also on-board, as Maggie Esmerelda, "The Fortune Teller."
Exec producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have also used their other-worldly powers to draw some major talent this season. There's...Frances Conroy, as "socialite Gloria Mott" (appears Wednesday); "AHS" regular Denis O'Hare as "The Con Artist;" Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, the...ummm...hmmm..."Incredible Three-Breasted Woman;" Michael Chiklis, as Dell Toledo, the World's Strongest Man; and...Patti LaBelle, as Dora - special talent unknown, but she unfortunately does not sing..
MY SAY There are few returning series that make as awful -- in the best sense of the word -- a first impression as "AHS," and in the case of "Freak Show," that even happens before tonight's fourth-season opener ("Monsters Among Us") gets underway. The appalling splendor is right there in credits, as a menagerie of creatures hop, crawl, and slither across the screen, or -- for an especially grotesque effect -- disembody themselves. Credit sequences are an "AHS" specialty, but the FX franchise pretty much outdoes itself with this one.
And that's even before we meet the homicidal clown, who looks like the third member of Insane Clown Posse, or Dot and Bette, the fabulous twins who can read each other's thoughts but who have radically different personalties (one is fun-loving, the other Calvinist, both psychotic).
She/they are Paulson's most amazing "AHS" character(s) to date, and present a real conundrum for Emmy voters if she should somehow score a nomination for this role. (Whom to vote for -- Dot or Bette? Or will Paulson end up splitting the vote?) The special effects are so seamless and Paulson's performance so memorable that it's not a completely incidental question.
Then, of course, there's Lange, who's found a whole new career in "AHS," and who has also discovered a way to play an entirely different character each season -- while playing exactly the same one, too. For "Freak Show," she is Elsa Mars, a refugee from Weimar Berlin, with an accent, style and couture that falls somewhere between Marlene Dietrich of "Blonde Venus" and Madeline Kahn of "Young Frankenstein." It's hilariously campy, especially when she sings a rousing, full-voiced rendition of David Bowie's "Life on Mars" to an empty house.
Why is Elsa singing a song that was released in 1971 on a show that's set in 1952? Welcome to the world of "Freak Show," where a "don't ask (or think too much)" policy is advised.
BOTTOM LINE Fun opener. You're on your own after that.