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American Horror Story: Freak Show - Monsters Among Us - Advance Preview, "Is There Life on Mars?"

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“The ones you call depraved; they are the beautiful, heroic ones. They offer their oddity to the world. They provide a laugh or a fright to people in need of entertainment. Everyone is living the life they chose. But you, undoubtedly, will be one of those soulless monsters. Perhaps you already are.”

The moment it was confirmed that American Horror Story’s fourth season was subtitled Freak Show I had one immediate thought: I hope it’s something like Asylum. Of the first three installments in Ryan Murphy’s FX horror/drama anthology, the second, Asylum, was easily my favorite. The first season (originally simply titled American Horror Story, but often referred to as Murder House in retrospect – I call it The One with Tami Taylor) was an immediate delight, blending horror, soap and comedy in a way that I honestly couldn’t compare to anything else at the time. But in the three years since its debut Horror Story has become the series that new shows are compared to: it has inspired not only a wave of anthology and event series’ but also helped bring horror back to television in a huge way. The second season took on a much darker and more gruesome tone than the first, its story set in a Catholic-run 1960s asylum for the criminally insane. Much of what I felt made that season so special was lost when the third season, Coven, premiered. An anthology series is a tricky thing to run – while trying to tell a new story each season that feels fresh and different, it’s easy to alienate certain viewers who loved aspects of a previous incarnation. Coven, even with its faults, remained original and entertaining, and consistently boasted some of the best performances on television. But the first episode of Freak Show promises to return the franchise to the genuinely terrifying, character-driven horror of its best days.

Jessica Lange is, as always, reason enough to watch this. As Elsa Mars, a German ex-pat determined to keep her freak show (Fraulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities) running past its apparent prime, Lange gives us a character that we can at once both fear and sympathize with – something much of last season was missing. What makes Horror Story so appealing, at its best, is Murphy’s ability to pull audiences into his ridiculous world and not only make us believe what’s going on, but get us to fear it. Coven lost much of that as jumbled storylines, supernatural twists and one-too-many ‘are they serious?’ plot points made it hard to care how things would end up. But like Murder House and Asylum, Freak Show creates a fantastic world with eccentric characters and immediately has us rooting for its stars.

The 90-minute season opener makes the wise choice of only introducing us to a handful of its leads (Michael Chiklis and Angela Bassett don’t turn up until episode two; Denis O’Hare, Emma Roberts and Gabourey Sidibe sometime after that). The world of the freak show is mainly introduced to us through the eyes of Sarah Paulson’s Dot and Bette Tattler, conjoined twins who join the act after being suspected of a gruesome crime. Paulson pulls off a true feat here, convincingly playing both parts and portraying the characters with wildly different personalities but equal depth. Much like the Harmon family moving into Murder House or Lana entering Briarcliff, here Murphy puts the audiences in his characters shoes and the sense of dread as the dark oddities of the freak show are revealed is great.

If this season can continue to build upon what’s set up in the first episode without deviating too far into absurd subplots, Freak Show could easily stand as Horror Story’s strongest effort yet. It’s extremely exciting to see actors who were underused or oddly cast last year get some electrifying turns this year – as the charming and tortured Jimmy Darling, champion of his band of freaks, Evan Peters is phenomenal. It’s not surprising, mind you, because his work in both Murder House and Asylum was superb – his character was simply underdeveloped and quickly swept aside in Coven (as was every other male presence). Darling’s mother, Elsa’s right-hand-woman, Ethel, is the also-returning and always-fantastic Kathy Bates. As for new additions to the cast, up-and-comer Finn Wittrock is a pleasant surprise who seems poised to become a breakout. It’s not that I didn’t expect much from him (I’ve never seen the actor onscreen before) but that I didn’t expect much from his character. First seen alongside his mother (Francis Conroy) as audience members at Elsa’s show, Wittrock’s Dandy Mott appears little more than a spoiled man-child. It’s quickly evident, however, as his fascination with the freak show becomes apparent, that Dandy has a sinister side. Wittrock plays the character with such ease and charisma that his reserved desire for chaos and promise of evil under the surface is reminiscent of a young Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge (just about as big of a compliment I can pay to an actor playing menace). By episode two, that promise is fully realized.

When American Horror Story returns on Wednesday there will likely be a divide among the audience: some fans call Coven their favorite season. Like I said, anthology series’ lend themselves to each season garnering a different response from different viewers. What Freak Show does so well, as Horror Story has in the past, is take the best bits of each of its previous incarnations and blend them together. Even more impressive: it stands totally on its own merits. The premiere episode is not as dark as Asylum, as sexy as Murder House or as funny as Coven – it’s entirely its own beast and in the best way possible. The atmosphere created in the first episode is one that won't soon be forgotten by audiences: breathtaking sets, haunting music, dynamic characters and a whole lot of horror.

Freakiest Bits:

- Ryan Murphy WAS NOT over-hyping the clown. While season 3 lacked any singular terrifying villain, Freak Show wastes no time letting us know how gruesome Twisty gets.
- One often-divisive-but-always-present Murphyism: a musical sequence (it works here). If you’ve ever wanted to hear Jessica Lange singing David Bowie, well, Freak Show has got that.
- The episode isn’t without comedy, either, but don’t expect the bitchiness or B-movie cheese of last year. Here the humor is either dark or used to emphasis how different the times were. Sarah Paulson has easily my favorite line of the episode as na├»ve, emotional Dot begs her mother to let the twins out of the house to see Singing in The Rain (“I wanna see the movie, I wanna see it now… in glorious technicolor!”)
- A last-minute twist reveals that Elsa fits in with her band of freaks more than she’s let on.

American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres Wednesday at 10 EST on FX. Hit the comments with any questions or to let us know what you're most looking forward to - and head back Wednesday night to share your thoughts on the episode. For more on the series, including future episode previews, check out my personal Twitter as well as SpoilerTV’s official account.

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