Ryan Murphy’s work starkly juxtaposes cruelty and triumph, the possibility of real degradation and of real victory. His shows—Glee, The New Normal, Popular, Nip/Tuck—have a mean streak, a willingness to humiliate and tease their characters, when those characters are not getting put through emotionally debilitating, melodramatic paces. His series also exhibit a soft spot for the underdog, a devotional belief in talent and drive, and a sense of karma that can verge on the cheesy. These qualities can coexist, but not always seamlessly—there is jangling when, for example, Glee casually insults its actors’ looks and then lavishly praises them for standing up to bullying.
But the friction between these two not-quite-competing aesthetics is what gives American Horror Story—Murphy’s wackadoo, disturbing, and utterly entertaining anthology series, which begins its fourth season on FX on Wednesday night—so much of its warped power. Like all great horror, it is willing to abuse its audience—which, in a perfectly Murphian turn, wants to be abused. But, as with most classics of the genre, that willingness to abuse is joined by a strong moral sense, albeit, in Murphy’s case, a moral sense that has nothing to do with killing off the promiscuous woman first.
AHS is an unsettling fantasia of nearly every disturbing thing in America’s shameful collective nightmare box, from ghosts and witches and serial killers to Nazis and slave owners. But the series, like the rest of Murphy’s work, has a bizarre sort of optimism. For a show that runs through horror tropes with the speed, energy, and joy of a Supermarket Sweep contestant, each season has finished with something like a happy ending. (As well as, yes, a body count and immense psychological and physical damage.) Life can be a horror story, but when that story’s done, it gets better. There is horror, but, also, hope.
The new season, American Horror Story: Freak Show, is set in 1952 in the town of Jupiter, Florida. It stars Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars, a fame-seeking Marlene Dietrich wannabe with a very shaky accent who is in charge of a flailing freak show. (Elsa appears to have a sideline in smut films, taping drug-fueled and not entirely consensual orgies that may be boosting her bottom line.) Her carnies include bearded lady Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) and her son Jimmy (Evan Peters), who dresses like Marlon Brando in The Wild One but has deformed hands that are perfect for pleasuring housewives. The freak show’s fortunes begin to look up when Elsa recruits Siamese twins played by Sarah Paulson (who continues to be the show’s real lead, no matter Lange’s billing). Dot is bossy, mean, puritanical, and talented. Her sister Bette is sweeter, softer, more fame-seeking and sexual. The pair have just been discovered for the first time by the authorities. In the second episode, they are joined by a strong man with a temper named Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and his wife, Desiree (Angela Bassett), a hermaphrodite with “three titties and a ding-a-ling,” as she puts it.
Simultaneously, a truly horrifying clown—if you do not have a clown phobia yet, good luck watching this show and keeping it that way—is wandering around Jupiter, viciously murdering people while they sleep and taking hostages. The clown, silent, brutal, and leering, may be AHS’s scariest bogeyman yet, but he is far from Freak Show’s only bad guy. The perfectly named Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) seems to be a comedic character, a spoiled, infantilized young man who drinks his cognac out of a crystal baby bottle and thinks his freakish talent is knowing the “entire Cole Porter canon.” But he’s a bored rich kid with no sense of right and wrong and he may end up being even more sociopathic than the clown.
Murphy has always been interested in the experiences of marginalized people, whether they are nerdy high school students or gay dads, but it took a couple of seasons for American Horror Story to frame its protagonists explicitly in these terms. Season 1, a ghost story, was contained entirely within one haunted house, and if its characters were marginalized it was by the fact of their being dead. (A pretty marginalizing condition, it turns out.) American Horror Story: Asylum, the richest, most upsetting, and best season so far, focused on all the inhabitants of an asylum, who did not have a particularly strong sense of community. But last season’s bubbly, glossy Coven was about a group of wrongly hunted and feared witches, a group of unique, talented people who were abused and hurt because of the way they were born. American Horror Story was done with being subtle about its allegories.
Freak Show is even less subtle about the way its titular freaks are stand-ins for mistreated minority groups generally. A small town in 1950s Florida with a murderer on the loose is not a good place to be different, and Murphy lays this observation on nice and thick. The freaks, led by Jimmy, take issue with being called freaks. “I hate that word,” a man with truncated forearms tells Jimmy, who replies, “If they just got to know us, they would see they’re just like us.” He then arranges a kind of sit-in for the freaks at the local diner. Elsa, who lovingly calls her employees her “monsters”—shades of Lady Gaga—insists, “My monsters wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ll tell you who the monsters are, the people outside in this town. My monsters are the beautiful, heroic ones, they provide a laugh or a fright to people who need entertainment.”
This is heavy-handed, obviously, if not for Murphy then for American Horror Story. But at least Lady Gaga koans about identity politics are the place where Freak Show is beginning, and not, as with Coven, where it will (one hopes) end up. The season seems set to explore the freaks inside everyone. Whatever they may say, people come to the freak show because something about it appeals to them, excites them, turns them on. Men may disdain the freak with the disfigured hands, but wives invite him to a Tupperware party so he can get them off. (Between Johnny’s magic hand and Elsa’s sideline in sex reels, the season already seems more sexually attuned than previous installments.) We all have monsters inside of us—or, in the case of Dot and Bette, a monster right next to us.
As with all of Murphy’s work, there is no shortage of ideas. Whether he’ll follow through on them or—as with the slavery storyline on Coven—just lose interest, we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, there will be more moments like this one from the first episode: Jessica Lange in a tailored powder-blue suit and huge swaths of blue eye shadow belting out David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” (“Look at those cavemen go/ It’s the freakiest show-oh-oh-oh”). In Episode 2, Dot performs Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” before an impromptu 1950s mosh pit. Humor, terror, sex, death, camp, karaoke: No show on television has all these ingredients but American Horror Story.