FX’s vastly popular television series American Horror Story kicked off its fourth season (and Jessica Lange’s last) with a kooky carnival troupe and killer clown guaranteed to keep you up at night.

In its premiere episode, we meet Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), conjoined twins newly recruited into Lange’s ringleader Elsa Mars’ “Cabinet of Curiosities.” The year is 1952 and the town is Jupiter, Florida, where people don’t take too kindly to abnormalities. Bette and Dot have been accused of stabbing their elderly mother to death, a crime to which carefree and optimistic Bette does not want to own up. Her sister Dot is less hopeful and observes her new family, the circus troupe, with a wary eye. Through the sisters, we meet an assortment of freaks: Evan Peters’ Jimmy Darling, a flirtatious and protective young man who suffers from ectrodactyly, Kathy Bates’ Ethel, Jimmy’s bearded mother, Naomi Grossman’s Pepper, who we first met in AHS: Asylum, the world’s tallest woman, and the world’s tiniest woman, played by real-life tiniest woman, Jyoti Amge. While they can live decadently, as seen in a cringe-worthy homemade moving picture, they are a tight-knit group of outsiders yearning for some normalcy.

In another subplot, Twisty the Clown, played by John Carrol Lynch, terrorizes Jupiter, killing teens and parents, and kidnapping two children to keep in his abandoned school bus. What he intends to do with them remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look good. A particular chilling scene includes Twisty shuffling towards a teen girl, who thinks he was hired to entertain her by her boyfriend, in broad daylight. First of all, why would anyone hire a clown that looked like Twisty? With a sewn-on face, bedraggled costume, and Joker-ish smile, you’d think no one would hire him. Secondly, why are people so blissfully oblivious in horror? I kept rooting for Jupiter’s locals to realize Twisty’s twisted nature, but no one did until the very last second. I laughed out loud during the opening scene, where a local milk-man investigates strange noises in Bette and Dot’s house while clutching a rolling pin. I suppose creator Ryan Murphy is playing into that innocent, domestic ‘50s mindset, where all clowns are good clowns and the best weapons are simple kitchen appliances.

All in all, the premiere episode of Freak Show was a taut, well-acted beginning to what is sure to be a crazy, effed up season. It’s outrageous, sometimes humorous, and often frightening. The series excels at the element of surprise, especially as many shots and actions occur when you’re calm (or calmer) and least expecting it. As the show also likes to push the envelope on what is and isn’t appropriate, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Twisty graphically stab two of his victims, or one of the Jupiter locals become involved in a carnival orgy, or that Jimmy is fairly lucky with the ladies; the character uses his deformity to pleasure several desperate housewives at one point during the episode. “No flipper action,” his mother warns him later on.

I likened the show’s general tone to Asylum, AHS’s second season set in the mental institution, which was infinitely darker than the first and third seasons. While visually it is the brightest –lush green grass, vivid costumes, circus tents and other rooms glowing orange, its mood is eerie and melancholy. The only aspect I didn’t really care was the shrieking violins which dominated the soundtrack and diminished the natural tension of scenes.

Like Elsa, Murphy is very much a ringleader himself, using the same troupe of actors from season to season, despite their variety in character. While the character motives remain obscure for now, I’m looking forward to seeing how Elsa and the “freaks” navigate their way through a failing interest in carnivals and the constant presence of that truly unsettling clown. Will we ever look at circuses the same way again?

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