***WARNING : SPOILERS GALORE****
The series, American Horror Story, sort of crept onto the scene. FX did an exceptional job with publicity, never really revealing the depths the show would go in storytelling. It peaked your curiosity without ruining any suprises. It premiered in October of 2012 and rejuvinated horror fans with something we had not experienced on television in quite awhile; fear and mystery. I hesitated to watch the series for several reasons until Season 3’s Coven came out. Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and witches? That was too much to pass up. I was so enchanted with the first episodes themes, pacing, and acting (not to mention the graphic language and brutality they handled gracefully), that I immediately wrote a review for it. Then…something happened. Here is my review (and explanation) of the entire series thus far, as we head into a holiday break from season 4’s Freakshow. I shall review them in the order I watched them.
Coven had a lot going for it. There were social messages of racism and discrimination. The show had undeniable style (not just in costuming and design but in camerawork and editing). We had cat fights maxed out by supernatural powers. A Minotaur was banging Precious for crying out loud!!! It kept me on my toes. The acting / casting was pretty solid all the way around (though I found Emma Roberts a bit typical as the Hollywood actress). About halfway through, I noticed something. There wasn’t a genuine moment happening anywhere. Two characters were fighting one moment and then not fighting the next (for no apparent reason). People died and came back as if it were a new fad. You got used to not grieving a loss or rooting for anyone, because they were bound to show back up or do something uncharacteristically evil. For example, Misty Day (the sweetest and kindest character on the show with a great taste in music, played by Lily Rabe) attacking the ax-man. She didn’t know who he was? Why would she “want a piece of him?” The show began to unravel as if the writers had lost track of the story. Honestly, if it weren’t for the one-liners and cat fights (and the nagging desire to know for sure who would be crowned the new Supreme), I would have given up on the series. Kudos for bringing us Stevie Nicks, though. That was classy and appreciated. It finally came down to the only way to end an unraveled mess of a plot; conveniently kill off people that you didn’t want or need standing at the end. The death of Misty Day was a shocking travesty in that it didn’t have any moral weight to it. She didn’t just die like the vulgar and spoiled Madison (Roberts), when strangled by her Frankenstein-esque play-thing. She was stuck being tortured for eternity. That is not only unsatisfying, it is confusing to an audience who has waited for people to get what was coming to them.
Murder House was the first in the series. You must always be forgiving when a promising show has glitches. That is to be expected. Season 1 was brutal, but sensible storytelling. It had a clear plot that unrolled with each episode. It had some pretty undeniable plot holes (like how a ghost can get someone pregnant) and the teenage whining was a bit grating. The story followed a family who escapes their troubles by moving across country into a (unbeknownst to them) haunted hause. What proceeds is a battle for sanity, for survival, and for the possession of a newborn baby. Still, the show was full of twists and surprises. Then, there was the solid acting that felt like a true drama with a horror backdrop. Connie Britton was downright unreal in how real she was as the wife/mother, Vivian. She was perfectly placed opposite Dylan McDermott, as the f*ck up husband of the century. Her relative nature and firm delivery were perfect for a show that had so many characters in it. Evan Peters was charming, even when unhinged. He was an instant breakout talent. It was also fun to see Zachary Quinto as 1/2 of a dysfunctional gay couple. He has great intensity. Yet, with all of these polished deliveries, it all came down to Jessica Lange. Lange played the fussy, uptight neighbor who, of course, had something to hide. She played it with the delicacy of a trained violinist. It was proof that she had the same star power she did in her early career. The deaths in Murder House were indeed gruesome, but in a Tobe Hooper way. They would show enough. It was smart camera work. This series wraps up with a little *wink* and a smile, like a good ghost story should.
Next came season 3’s Asylum. This season is a bit polorizing with fans. Some found it “too busy” while others praise it as the best season. This season allowed Sarah Paulson (as lesbian reporter Laura Winters) to shine. She is trying to uncover a scandal at the church run asylum, Briarcliff, when head warden, Sister June (played perfectly again by Lange) decides to have her committed to prevent any trouble. The plot involves demonic possession (a fun and balanced portrayal by Lily Rabe), alien abduction, racism, serial killers, and mutation by nazi experimentation. Yes, that sounds like a clusterf*ck, but what makes this season brilliant is that they manage to take all of that and knit it into a complete story. When you think something is random, it still serves a purpose to moving the story along. The pacing on this is insane! (See what I did there?) It never stops progressing, never stops answering questions and raising new ones, never gives you much time to look away. The first half was watched in one night and I felt drained. Paulson and Quinto (who plays a psychiatrist with a secret) have amazing chemistry. Lange’s transformation is nothing short of masterful as she goes from stern authority figure to vulnerable shell of a woman. We are also introduced to Pepper, the pinhead who is abducted and infused with intelligence by aliens to serve as a caretaker for Kit Walker’s (Evan Peters) unborn baby. Yeah, let that sink in. This season is frightening, funny, witty, mysterious, and at times…sweet. Unlike Coven, Asylum sees its characters through to the end, with great satisfaction. The final scene is a reminder of much you had gone through with a line that summed up everything; “If you’re going to look in the face of evil, Evil’s going to look right back at you.”
This catches us up to the current season, Freakshow. Given a backdrop of a 1950’s circus freakshow on its lasts legs, this show starts off somewhat predictable. However, there is an undeniable charm in all of the supporting cast of “freaks.” So far, this would be even harder to review for two reason; it has yet to finish and the story is paper thin compared to previous seasons. If it had to be summarized, it could be said that everyone is out to kill the freaks…even the freaks. That’s not much of a plot, though. The highlights thus far have been Twisty the Clown (delightfully creepy John Carroll Lynch) and his unwanted, but persistent and spoiled admirer, Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Wittrock is refreshing and a thrill to watch as he becomes desperate and unhinged to find his place. Unfortunately, everyone else looks tired or their characters have taken a back seat to the visuals of the “freaks.” Angela Bassett is wasted (more so than any of the other actors) as the three-boobed hermaphrodite lover of Michael Chicklis’s character. Kathy Bates also deserves honorable mention. In Coven she was a dynamite racist serial killer, but here she is allowed to do what she does well; reflective drama. Lange plays the ringleader of the freakshow, passing herself off as a savior when in reality she is clawing at a chance at fame.
This season has so far been strictly about disturbing us, not storytelling. In fact, I found that the “freaks” were not disturbing at all. Bassett talking about her super-sized vagina and Chicklis smothering a woman the size of an infant were just the tip of the iceberg. Confusing doesn’t begin to cover the description of the choices that were made, but in the last episode our spunky lobster boy (Peters) performs “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Mmmmm…hmmm…Now, Lange had performed Lana Del Ray’s “God’s and Monsters” earlier in the season and Paulson (playing dual roles as conjoined twins Bette and Dott) sang “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. However, those were at least re-worked to sound bit like old torch songs. Peters was given free reign to do his best 90’s rock interpretation, which I found jarring and irrelevant. At no point had Evan’s character been defined as a singer, and when he was done “rehearsing” Lange simply dismissed his performance, sending him into a rage about some of Lange’s character’s questionable actions. My point? It seemed like the musical performance was merely in there because the creators like musical numbers. It came out of nowhere and went nowhere. Another confusing choice? Casting R&B legend Patti Labelle as a maid, who is only on to wear a Woody Woodpecker suit and provoke the aforementioned Dandy into slitting her throat. What? She doesn’t sing? She’s only seen about 5 minutes total before being killed? Why did she do this? Anyone could have taken that role.
To review, what started off as a promising show is now suffering from a lack of focus. Murder House and Asylum were rich in storytelling. The following installments were spoiled. It was like those movies where the young impoverished girl is given an opportunity to be rich and famous. When she finally makes it, she becomes a selfish b*tch, concerned about surface and popularity. AHS gained a following, then succumbed to the shallowness of success. Creator Ryan Murphy has announced that all of the season’s are related and many have called foul. They think this is a cheap gimmick to get/keep people watching despite the many failing points. I mean almost all of the returning actors are forced to play almost identical characters, only in different settings. Lange is a domineering drunk struggling with her own self worth in seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Peters plays the tortured puppy dog love interest in every season (almost always destined to show his butt and cry A LOT, though he does both very well). Bassett is the sassy black woman, again. I’m hoping like in those rags-to-riches stories, that they will learn their lesson and return to substance. If they don’t, (especially after the announced departure of Lange) they may be forced to close the book on American Horror Story.