Upon hearing that the fourth season of FX's lurid American Horror Story franchise was subtitled Freak Show, you can be forgiven if your first reaction was "Redundant much?" Few series are freakier by their very nature than Ryan Murphy's annual anthology of grotesque Grand Guignol. Freak Show (Wednesday, 10/9c) upholds the grisly tradition, although the empathy shown for this year's bizarre family of sideshow outcasts makes this edition of AHS initially less ridiculous than usual (especially when compared to the ludicrous hot mess of last year's Coven).
The new story is set in the early '50s at a tawdry sideshow carnival, which has set up its shabby tents and trailers in rural Jupiter, Florida. "Carny folks are a vanishing breed," observes one of the human flotsam, and with the newfangled medium of TV keeping the masses at home, there's no question that "Fraulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities" is a ghostly remnant of a bygone time. The aura of faded exotic glamour is embodied in the ravaged would-be diva Fraulein Elsa (a desperately poignant Jessica Lange, sporting an ersatz German accent), den mother to her deformed "monsters" and dangerously delusional in her dreams of stardom. (Her and others' song choices are anachronistically contemporary, every so often turning the show into a sordid Glee.)
American Horror Story has never been known for its subtlety, but even so, Freak Show lays on the metaphor of who are the true monsters awfully thick. (Consider a new drinking game for every time Evan Peters' claw-handed "lobster boy" defensively shouts, "Stop calling us freaks!") Still, at times the theme does ring true, when it isn't beating you over the head. While you may cringe the first time you see Sarah Paulson as a creepy two-headed twin sharing the same body, her compellingly nuanced performance as Dot (yearning for fame but lacking the chops) and Bette (pensive but talented) is the strongest characterization in the first two chapters. (Other returning repertory players include Kathy Bates as a gruff bearded lady and Angela Bassett as a sexy siren with an exceedingly ample chest.)
But just when you may fool yourself into thinking you're watching the second coming of Carnivale (HBO's evocatively surreal supernatural thriller from a decade ago), AHS remembers what the "H" in its title stands for, with a ghastly (though, because of its overkill, rarely frightening) subplot of a Franken-clown serial killer roaming the countryside. John Carroll Lynch brings a mute menace to this grisly beast of a creature, a nightmarishly perverse caricature of grinning decay, its lips pulled back in a ghoulish rictus over an oversized set of exposed fake choppers. When this murderous and kidnapping fiend crosses paths with the show's most cartoonish characters, a wealthy mother-son combo (played with tiresomely arch camp by Frances Conroy and Finn Wittrock), it's hard to know whether to laugh, scream or roll one's eyes. Even when Freak Show collapses under its undiluted excess, it does remember at least one essential truth of terror: Nothing's scarier than a mean, ugly clown.
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TOUGH GUYS: Fihting makes family ties grow stronger in DirecTV's Kingdom (Audience Network, 9/8c), a grueling but intriguing new double-fisted drama set in the world of mixed martial arts. Using its Venice, California, locations to terrifically seedy effect, with gamy and graphic content on par with premium cable, this multigenerational story impresses with its blunt-force depiction of an urban warrior culture. Frank Grillo convincingly stars as patriarch and MMA legend Alvey Kulina, owner of a struggling gym and trainer of his driven son Nate (an almost unrecognizably rugged Nick Jonas), who's the keeper of the family flame, unlike his recklessly dissolute older brother Jay (Jonathan Tucker).
Adding a dash of manly soap opera to the mix is Friday Night Lights' Matt Lauria as a formerly self-destructive MMA rising star (named Ryan, oddly the same as his Parenthood character) newly released from a four-year prison term and trying to get his life back on track. Ryan insists he's OK that Alvey is now living with his former flame Lisa (The Glades' Kiele Sanchez), but things are bound to get rocky for this crew. And not just because of the local gang-bangers looking to cause Alvey some grief.
For those wondering how's the fighting: If Nate's first explosive cage match is any indication of what's to come, fasten your seat belts. And that's no raging bull.