When this season of American Horror Story debuted seven weeks ago, at least nine of my friends or coworkers embarked on Freak Show with me and with great optimism.
After all, this would supposedly be Jessica Lange’s final appearance on the show. The steady trickle of news about guest stars (Matt Bomer!) and the stylishly disturbing eight-second teaser videos whipped up some healthy hype. After the debacle of Coven, fans of the anthology series took several deep breaths and said to themselves, “OK, blank slate.”
Now, at episode seven, I’m the only person I know regularly keeping up with the show: Several of my fellow AHS devotees have confessed that they’ve given up; the others are reluctant to continue. One said she was bored by the freak show. Another said he thought the season is “just weird, not shocking or scary.” But how do you feel about the story? I asked. “I don’t care enough about any of the characters,” he said.
So I asked some of them: What would get you to come back to the show?
“Connie Britton.” “Bring back clown. Kill the accents.” “Definitely Twisty, but I feel like I’m not clear on what the storyline is at all.”
I too have come to the conclusion that the show is messy and has lost track of its story in an attempt to be endearingly wild and unpredictable. None of the characters has fully won my sympathy (nor is anyone likely to do so the way Lana Winter from Asylum did), which makes it utterly exhausting to slog through an hour of television without even a few scares to jolt me awake.
Add to that lazy writing, pointless subplots, schizophrenic characters, neutered scares, cheap cameos, and weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness (which older seasons have also been accused of), and I can't begrudge anyone who's chosen to say goodbye to Freak Show already.
But Wednesday’s latest episode “Test of Strength” (dare I say it?) revived some of my original faith in the season by partly addressing Freak Show’s biggest problems thus far: the lack of characters to truly care about and the sloppy storyline.
Without giving too much away (in case I convince anyone to actually recommit to the show) a character I had never liked this season revealed his complex humanity after being forced into a tight spot by the menacingly mustachioed and sinisterly coiffed Stanley. Self-aware moral grayness and character development: good! The episode also seems to have raised the stakes for the twins, who are rescued from one set of evil hands only to be unwittingly delivered to another. Plot momentum: great! One of the episode’s final moments may rank in the show’s most heartbreaking scenes thus far, alongside Twisty’s flashback. Actual emotion: hooray! There’s also a weird tangle of deceptions that has been set more fully into motion and that actually has me looking forward to the next episode. Interesting tension: promising!
In other words, “Test of Strength” reversed some of the trends I had feared would doom the rest of the season. But briefly renewed optimism aside, I’m not sure how many more chances I want to give American Ah-Okay-I-Guess-I'll-Watch Story: Freak Show. If the next few episodes regress into old tricks and pitfalls—well, there’s always next season.