Some seasons of American Horror Story are better than others. American Horror Story: Freak Show seems, on the basis of its first two episodes, to be the best yet, or at the very least, the best directed. But it's too early to render a verdict, and no matter how things shake out, variants of "good" and "best" seem inadequate or wrong when applied to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's gonzo-bloody anthology show. AHS has always been a high-wire act, a metaphor that finally seems apt now that the subject is a circus sideshow in the 1950s: The showrunners, writers, actors, and crew dance and flip, ride unicycles and juggle flaming chainsaws, fall off and climb back on again, and because they leave themselves no net, when they hit the ground — as they did week after week during their crummiest season, last year's tone-deaf Coven — it's a mesmerizingly awful spectacle, a heap of pancake makeup and vintage costumes and compound-fractured limbs.
But here's the funny thing: Like musicians and painters and filmmakers who work intuitively, never doing things the easy way when the wild way is more fun, it isn't always easy to explain why certain episodes or seasons of AHS soar or crash. Even when scenes and sequences are rigorously scripted and filmed, everyone involved seems to be taking dictation from the subconscious. That means that the best and worst stuff has roughly the same vibe and temperature and utilizes similar methods. And it means that you just know when something is working (for you, and you alone) or not. It's always a gut call, not unlike the gut calls that probably occur on set whenever Murphy or Falchuk or some collaborator is choreographing a Dutch-tilted dolly into a close-up of people mutilating themselves with hatpins while sticking yams up their bums and cursing President Eisenhower. Nothing like that happens in Freak Show, but you and I both know that it could.
The show has a slightly theater-workshop-y feeling, as if you're watching a floating, semi-improvised, cabaret-type production that aims to provoke, delight, and baffle, and that would rather be spectacularly awful than tasteful and measured, because at least the awful stuff will give you something to laugh at and talk about later. Looking back on seasons one through three, you may realize that whole episodes are conceived not according to any linear, A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C structure, but rather as a series of scenes or setpieces or tableaux (or musical numbers; these are the same people who created Glee, after all). Spectacle is everything, and it's comprised of sex, blood, campy humor, the sorts of "transgressive" messages that make off-campus graduate theater experiments so iffy, and moments that seem to exist mainly to scratch somebody's itch (like Jessica Lange's performance of "The Name Game" in Asylum). The commercial breaks are bumpers between short films that build to a bloody act of violence or a creepy-grotesque image. Each new segment often seem to have a rather tentative connection to whatever came before and after, like a bit in a sketch-comedy program or a musical revue or a circus performance. So you don't like the trapeze routine? Here come the elephants. And then the clowns. The scary clowns. The really scary clowns.
If you've read this far, you're a fan, so I'll cut to the important stuff. Many of the AHS repertory cast members are back, doing what they do best, which is shred scenery like a pack of Tasmanian devils whirling across a cartoon landscape. It's the mid-'50s in Jupiter, Florida. A series of mysterious murders — oh, hell, they're not mysterious, who am I kidding; the filthy, leering, fang-faced clown you've seen in previews, John Carroll Lynch's Twisty, is the show's resident Pennywise, a jack-in-the-box gargoyle who eviscerates some strangers and imprisons and tortures children.
The town is terrified by the killings and blames them on the local freak show, a traveling performance troupe stocked with all the now-outlawed sideshow staples you expect to see in a period piece like this one: little people, legless people, people with malformed limbs, and so forth. Like the misfits in Tod Browning's Freaks — a major influence on season four, along with La Strada, El Topo, Carnivale, and half the midnight flicks ever made — the carnies hate being scapegoated, tormented, and ostracized, but they're happy to take the so-called "normal" people's money because that's the only option available to them in the mid-'50s, tight-assed United States of Move Along, Weirdo. They don't appreciate being suspected of facilitating the killings or harboring the killer because, you see, mainstream society is where the real freaks are, man. As was the case on Nip/Tuck, and as is still the case on Glee, Murphy and Falchuk eat their politically correct circus peanuts and have them, too. Their cameras feast on the "freaks" in intricately choreographed scenes that seem to have been accomplished through some unholy fusion of prosthetics and computer effects, and then they step back and let the characters deliver soliloquies on what it means to be an outsider. "If they just got to know us, they would see were just like them," one performer says plaintively. "No better, no worse, just regular people." He's chopping up a corpse as he says it.
Evan Peters returns, this time as "Lobster Boy" Jimmie Darling, whose elegantly long fingers, fused and divided into penguinlike flukes, enable him to earn side bread as a gigolo whose specialty is manual pleasure. (Who would he take to prom, that's what I want to know.) Michael Chiklis joins the cast as a strongman who's like Anthony Quinn's Zampano from La Strada by way of Popeye the Sailor Man. Sarah Paulson plays a pair of super-conjoined twins sold to freak-show customers as a two-headed woman. She has a tragic, horrifying, super-bloody past, of course, and fills it in via flashbacks accompanied by voice-over diary entries that suggest Flannery O'Connor rewritten by Judy Blume. (Actual quote: "Dear Diary: My soul plumbs new depths of despair.") The bad news is, at no point in the first two episodes does the two-headed woman make out with herself. The good news is, I've only seen the first two. Anything can happen, people! Anything!
Jessica Lange, the Meryl Streep of Murphyland, is on hand again, playing another smokin'-hot 60-something tragic schemer, Elsa Mars, proprietor of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Her German accent sounds like Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles imitating Marlene Dietrich while eating melba toast. (All I want for Christmas is a ringtone of her purring to a local official who's trying to run her out of town: "I think I have a bottle of schnapps … Inside.") And yes, my darlings, Lange has a musical number — one of those magnificently loopy, "What the hell is happening? Where are my pills?" Ryan Murphy showstoppers that violates most of the rules the show set for itself, none of which were all that rigid to begin with. Kathy Bates plays a bearded lady whose makeup suggests an Amish Louie Anderson. She speaks in an accent I can't quite place: Wisconsin Mennonite, perhaps.
Tonight's 90-minute curtain raiser was directed by Murphy, in this-is-my-happening-and-it-freaks-me-out mode; he tilts the camera sideways whenever he damn well pleases, thank you very much. Next week's follow-up was helmed by AHS regular Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His lenses are so wide that the edges of the frame seem to warp and buckle and fold in on themselves. He likes to shoot up at people from beneath floorboards so that their bodies stretch toward the ceiling and their skulls seem as tiny and perfectly rounded as lollipop heads, as if you're seeing through the eyes of a toad that ate the brown acid. Every door is a hundred feet tall. Every hallway is a thousand feet long. Every house becomes a haunted one. The period details (plates, glasses, transistor radios, soda bottles, cars with rounded fenders and sharklike tail fins) are lovingly assembled and arranged, then lit and photographed with an almost tactile luridness. The music is all provocations and distortions, a mix of period pop (with one rather dazzling anachronism), cannibalized scores from other horror films (the press screener used the Under the Skin score as a temporary track), and original compositions by James S. Levine. One recurring cue evokes a backwards–masked violin being pulled toward a black hole. Another, a Nino Rota–like calliope piece, suggests the music that a murderous organ-grinder's monkey might hear in its head as it was led to a tiny electric chair.
Strangely, though, the overall effect is more sedate than in seasons past. The shots are held longer and tend to be more carefully composed. There's a more classical horror-movie sense of concealment and revelation. We see silhouettes projected on hospital curtains before we see the people who cast the shadows. Sometimes we see the back of a menacing figure's head as he's stalking toward a victim, or a wide shot of the stalker approaching its prey: The buildup isn't tremendous, mind you, but it is more patient than what we're used to seeing on American Horror Story, arguably the first horror series aimed at a YouTube generation that wants its scares right now and will change the channel if they don't arrive quickly enough. The lighting in early scenes has the slightly creamy look we associate with 1970s horror films and thrillers: Jaws, Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (There are even split screens.) It's all in the service of a glorified parade of bloody whammies, granted; with its thirst for splatteriffic geek-trick violence and counterculture slogans, American Horror Story is every actor you ever dated for two weeks and then said, "I just can't." But it's still nice to see Murphy and Company aiming for their own slightly hyped-up version of an old-school scare job. When the camera glides down dark hallways and around corners, we hear a David Lynchian air whoosh on the soundtrack that evokes blood rushing to one's head. Outdoors at night, insects whir and chirp impatiently, as if they can't wait to sink their pincers into all that fresh meat. It's magisterially trashy: sweet, glorious madness.