So much of what’s good about a television anthology is the chance to genuinely reinvent oneself, whether weekly or seasonally. Instead, with Freak Show, the fourth season of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy has overused his own ideas to the point that it’s nearly unwatchable. The show recycles not only actors (and let’s be honest, Jessica Lange is the same character each season, albeit a well-performed one), but also plotlines from as far back as early Murphy efforts Popular and Nip/Tuck, with season four progressing to include a peppering of Glee-like musical sequences. This has created a “same actors, same roles, same oddities” situation, leaving viewers to ask what the point is anymore.
To be fair, American Horror Story came about a dozen years into Murphy’s proper television career, which might account for some creative burnout. Its first season, subtitled Murder House, was strong, concluding as the biggest new cable series of 2011. Though it still borrowed heavily from Nip/Tuck, it focused on the things that worked. Take, for example, the Harmon family, which was an anchor that was lacking in the succeeding seasons. The Harmons are reminiscent of Nip/Tuck’s McNamaras, from the fractured marriage to the way new characters were plausibly folded into the plot through their connection to the family. Compare that to season two, American Horror Story: Asylum, which treats storylines—Nazis! Aliens! Demonic possession! Serial killers!—like spaghetti, throwing tropes at the wall to see what sticks, with little regard for coherence or completion. Sure, seasons two through four offer makeshift families, from the asylum to the coven to the freak show. But they lack the same touchstone for viewers that’s offered by the base of Murder House—the family, as some of the most affecting horror films, like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining, infiltrate the viewers’ psyches through the familiarity of family, questioning how much loyalty one is willing to uphold when their loved ones become menacing monsters.
What’s interesting, though, is that the current season is weakened not by slighting the show’s previous strengths, but by overusing them. It’s hindering the show from improving upon itself as an anthology, which traditionally provides viewers with a different story and a different set of characters in each episode or season. Just as recently as last year, this still seemed to be American Horror Story’s intent; the show has always entered the Emmy ring in the miniseries category—garnering 17 nominations each year in the process—which requires the program to have a definitive end seasonally. So, Murphy’s new posit that all four seasons of American Horror Story are connected—implying some purposeful common thread between Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, and beyond—is telling in that it reveals the exact opposite. The show is simply passing off its repetitive and sloppy work by Murphy making this claim retroactively.
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To begin with, using the same actors each season, though a novel idea—previously carried out convincingly in vintage anthologies like The Richard Boone Show and Four Star Playhouse—has become distracting largely because the parts they play are barely altered. Lange reprises her role as the strong female lead, always a character whose Achilles heel is an unrelenting desire for power in the name of keeping her matriarchal legacy intact. The rest of the cast is filled out with Frances Conroy, ever the adversary to Lange (there’s still time for a power struggle between these two to reveal itself in Freak Show); Sarah Paulson, who oscillates between the extremes of hardhead and total pushover (expertly manifested in season four’s Dot and Bette Tatler); Lily Rabe, leading the series subplot as a consistent red herring, occasionally challenging Lange but never succeeding; and Evan Peters, the perpetual fuck-up with a heart of gold.
But the recycled parts don’t always originate from American Horror Story. Peters’ characters, especially his most recent, Jimmy Darling, can all be traced to Nip/Tuck protagonist Sean McNamara. Both are good-natured, and the mistakes they make stem from a need to fulfill some societal obligation they’ve placed on themselves. For Sean, it’s the pressures of being a loving husband, a good father, and an ethical surgeon that bring his demise. Despite his best efforts, his wife will never love him (because she is forever pining for his partner), his kids will never be well adjusted (because they’ve endured too many bizarre hardships brought on by their inept parents), and his partner will forever be fucking up their business with dastardly deeds (because his exceptional looks and unending cash flow allow it). Jimmy also faces obstacles outside of his control. As long as he has ectrodactyly, he will never attain the level of normalcy he longs for. It’s important to point out that this plot is also recycled, but from a different McNamara—Connor, Sean’s youngest son, is born with the same disability.
Even minor plotlines from Murphy’s past, such as the slasher-flick homage “I Know What You Did Last Spring Break” from Popular’s second season, have re-emerged, marching more prominently into Nip/Tuck’s “Carver” arc, which sees a masked serial rapist disfigure the beautiful by slicing a Joker-esque smile into their cheeks. “Beauty is a curse on the world,” says The Carver, and “it keeps us from seeing who the real monsters are.” Further work fleshes this idea out, constantly reminding us that it is not the freaks who are the real danger to society, it is the Christian Troys, Ben Harmons, Oliver Thredsons, and the Dandy Motts, all well-coiffed and privileged men who mean us harm. This is echoed once again with Freak Show asking the question, is society the real freak show?
And those are just a few of the many American Horror Story details that induce déjà vu. From the reappearance of once distinct characters names like Moira (Nip/Tuck season six, episode five, and American Horror Story: Murder House) to the repeated definitions of “fluffer” (Nip/Tuck season one, episode four, and American Horror Story season one) to the expertly choreographed covers of pop standards (every season of Glee and American Horror Story: Freak Show), Murphy telegraphs that he is running out of steam. The recent announcement that all four seasons of American Horror Story “are connected,” paired with the desperate gimmick claiming that clues for season five—Did you see that coffee mug with a top hat on it? What does it all mean?—have been carefully hidden in season four, only proves the show has nowhere else to go as an anthology or really, an original series. As much as Murphy may want viewers to believe there’s been a clear plot map since season one, that there’s “definitely a rhyme or a reason and a connectedness to all of these seasons,” it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the writers are just repeatedly riffing on the oddities that interest them most, producing television in the same way as that kid who keeps reworking one well-written term paper for each subsequent composition class. Maybe these ideas received an A+ freshman year, but by your senior seminar, we’re going to need a hell of a lot more. But it seems Murphy is pandering to a crowd that remains on his level: Even American Horror Story fans’ reportedly incorrect predictions that season five will be set in outer space have a ring of retread to them. Space is just another staple of the horror genre—though real buffs would know that traveling to space is traditionally reserved for a franchise’s fourth installment (Hellraiser, Critters, Leprechaun, etc.).
American Horror Story purists will likely revel in Murphy’s repurposed goods no matter what comes next. But the idea that this show is akin to a Rubik’s cube is only accurate in that no matter how much you fiddle with that toy, you’re bound to revisit some of the same squares.