“Monsters Among Us”

Column by Emma Friedlander
Emma Friedlander - Hannah Hwang
I Am Uncomfortable.
As much of a TV fanatic as I am, there are some binge-worthy serials that I just can’t get into. Shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Scandal” come to mind. Maybe political zombie sex scandals just aren’t my thing (that’s the premise of “Homeland,” right?), but a lot of these cult shows really don’t grab my attention, due to what I perceive to be a general lack of originality, quality writing and staying power.
But for the sake of your informed procrastination, I’m always willing to try new things. In the spirit of Halloween I tried out “American Horror Story,” a show that people just won’t shut up about. Before perusing the series on Netflix, this was the extent of my knowledge about the program: every season has a new premise, Emma Roberts smirks on it a lot and, uh, that’s it. I decided to go with the first episode of the fourth season, “Freak Show,” as it was the season most recently added to Netflix and therefore a likely candidate for potential procrastinators this back-to-school season.
It’s bad, guys. It’s really bad.
But I guess I can do some better journalism than that. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” takes place in 1952, in the most terrifying place in the world: Florida. Jessica Lange plays Elsa Mars, a German dame with lots of furs and great brow game who is recruiting for her freak show, Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, in the quaint town of Jupiter. She seeks out conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson with two heads, and according to the doctors, two hearts and four lungs but only one vagina), and rescues them from the impending coppers who suspect the twins for murdering their mother by sneaking them out of the hospital and into her freak show.
When we get to Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities itself, the scenes display a myriad of characters expected from any turn-of-the-century freak show you might read about in a crappy historical novel: Kathy Bates as the bearded lady, Evan Peters as the lobster-clawed boy and other people of varying extreme shapes and sizes. Throughout the episode, twins Bette and Dot get acclimated to the freak show lifestyle as they bond with their cohorts. This bonding culminates in a performance put on by the troupe, featuring the most disturbing part of the entire hour-long episode: Lange’s character singing David Bowie’s 1972 hit “Life on Mars” in a fake German accent.
Since the outside community violently targets the freaks, the gang resolves by the end of the episode to get to business murdering those who wrong them. Meanwhile, a gargantuan serial killer clown named Twisty wields his own stabbing mischief around town, bringing about a shocking string of murders for which the twins are suspected. Looks like all the fixings for a good old-fashioned crime show!
Although the idea behind the entire “American Horror Story” franchise is to revitalize the classic premise of cult horror movies, this reimagining of the horrific freak show is less refreshingly scary and more flat, hackneyed and just kind of uncomfortable. As the show attempts to emulate the archetypal freak show and mid-century Southern gothic, it instead creates a dry caricature of both. The recreation of the 1950s is made overly cartoonish with lines like “Lies, all lies!” and “Scram, toots,” delivered in mid-Atlantic accents, the forceful implementation of Patti Page songs and lots and lots of pastel petticoats and pin curls. Because it’s trying so hard and playing on so many generalizations, the reconstruction fails. Similarly, the freak show concept that we’ve seen so many times doesn’t seem to introduce anything particularly exciting to the genre, or anything particularly scary. Perhaps horror isn’t really the true meaning of the moving human drama that “American Horror Story” intends to be. The episode left me less frightened and more uncomfortable, with its ineffective use of violence, unbelievable character interactions and overbearing sexualization of absolutely everything.
My consensus: I know enough die-hard “American Horror Story” fans to recognize that my negative review of one episode will do nothing to dissuade them. “But ‘Freak Show’ is the worst season, the others are really good,” you’ll all berate me (weird phrasing). “You have to keep watching, you can’t judge based on one episode,” you’ll say. That may be, but the point of a first episode is to get somebody hooked on the show, which “Monsters Among Us” failed to do. I would rather re-watch cycles of “America’s Next Top Model” again and again until visions of Miss Jay dance in my dreams than watch more “Freak Show.” In fact, I would rather stop procrastinating and actually fulfill my responsibilities than watch more “Freak Show.” That’s saying a lot.
Got an idea for a Netflix show or movie you want to see reviewed? Email friedlan@grinnell.edu with your suggestions!