AHS Freak Show: Was it Good for You?

When I had originally written about the season premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show, I had no idea how wrong I would actually be – about the story line, about the characters, basically about the entire season.

What I’d imagined would be a shock-and-awe campaign, brimming with fancy and gore, actually turned out quite the opposite. Of the things I remember most vividly about this season, in fact, gore was probably last on my list.

Sure, the clown(s) at the beginning got me – they got a lot of people. The grotesque, the new-to-the-eyes, the mayhem, all drew us in. What I hadn’t expected, though, was how sharply the season would turn into something packed with more humanity than I’ve perhaps seen nowhere else this winter.

Many have mused throughout Freak Show how co-creator Ryan Murphy could possibly top last season’s Coven, and here we sit, trying to determine whether that goal was achieved. We’ve also mused about whether or not Jessica Lange could outdo every character she’s progressively outdone since the series began. And we marveled at Sarah Paulson’s working overtime, geniusly portraying conjoined twins, Bette and Dot.

Now we’re faced with the question: How did we find this season, and where do we go from here?

My opinion (that’s why you come here, right?) is that this season ruled them all, for quality of acting, story line, complexity of character, and viewers’ overall investment in the season. In the grand scheme of things, many were mutilated, dismembered, and shot at close range, but for some reason, I don’t remember much of that. What I do remember is Dandy Mott’s (Finn Whitrock) evolution from a pandering mama’s boy to a calculated killer, the moment Ethel (Kathy Bates) received her terminal diagnosis, and Elsa Mars’ (Lange) difficult and disheartening journey to her final destination.

Truth be told, I found last season’s Coven a little bit sloppy. There were episodes I felt were hammered out over a writers’ table in a matter of hours. Other episodes seemed to simply be filler. Yet, despite all that, I remained curiously disgusted about and intrigued by much of the story. What I did not have last season, though, was any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. Though Bates was hilarious and Lange played the hell out of Fiona Goode, I still wasn’t loving any of them. If (and when) one of the characters died (then came back, died again, and was maybe burned or buried alive), I wouldn’t have shed as much as a tear.

I liked them, but I didn’t care about them.

And it’s a hard sell, right? Could we love a bunch of freaks? Did we? Does the horror aspect of this show sort of disappear into the vapor when we can see inside the minds and hearts of its characters? And is this good for the business of horror in the first place?

Has the show become a drama? And would it bother you if it were? I think it would be alright with me. After all, in what arena can you successfully shake up complex characters with good old-fashioned horror, the supernatural, and the infinite darkness of the human mind?

I liked Freak Show. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. But I also felt that aspect we crave, that desire to have the wits scared out of us, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I paid much less attention to the gore than the characters and story this time around. At this point, I can’t say whether that’s a credit or a detriment to the series. The construct is more high-minded for sure, but is it in line with the rest of the franchise?

Has American Horror Story evolved? And if so, will the series evolve from here? Will it shed its bloody skin to become more of a drama than a horror story? Would you still watch if it did?

I don’t know. I’m thinking I probably would.

 

American Horror Story Freak Show can be found on FX. The show has been renewed for a fifth season.

Friendship in the ’90’s vs. Friendship Today

Remember having friends? I mean, really having friends? Those people, who came over, maybe ate dinner, or even watched a movie, with you? Or, better yet, people with whom you went out to the movies? Remember sitting around a table, laughing about your misadventures months after they happened?

I remember those people, too. And those times. Ah, how it used to be. In the good old days, if I may.

Please come by Redbook where I break down the major differences between friendship in the ’90’s and today.

And don’t forget your selfie stick.

Hope and Faith: Why We All Need Both

Imagine with me, if you will, lying on a sunny beach, lazily counting your lottery winnings. Finding yourself free of debt, worry, and fear. Waking up to a world free of war and disease. Seeing yourself dancing with your one true love. Imagine yourself wherever and however you ultimately wish.

Now imagine someone approaching you with a pin and popping that bubble, watching the drops of your dream splash and roll down the sides, as they wave their expertly crafted and highly detailed forensic analysis about just why what you’re dreaming isn’t or can’t be possible.

Some people are like that.

“I’m just pragmatic,” they’ll tell you. Or, “I’m just being realistic.”

Takes the wind right out of your sails, doesn’t it?

Some people see and feel things over the course of their lifetime that they can’t quite understand. Some people have experiences they simply cannot explain, experience ‘coincidences’ that appear all but impossible, and some even experience miracles.

Some people embrace these things, while others deny and push them away, deciding there’s no room for speculation, for spirituality, no room for anything that’s not dated, stamped, and bona fide.

Imagine if we were all like that. Imagine denying the possibility of divine intervention to the couple with the newborn baby in the NICU. Imagine telling that wife, sitting at her dying husband’s bedside, that there’s absolutely no hope. Imagine telling the child, who’s been in foster care for the past five years, that she’ll never be adopted.

Imagine that. Because you’re just being realistic. What kind of world is that?

No matter your belief system, which I don’t wish to call into question, most people must have a small reservoir of hope inside them somewhere, if only just to aid in survival, don’t they? I mean, shouldn’t they? In times of famine, or when there weren’t very many animals to club, didn’t someone hold out the hope of food? Did they ever look to the heavens – for inspiration, for guidance? Didn’t they once call on, or out to, a higher power? At some point, people had to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to stay alive.

Call it part of the collective unconscious, or the enduring human spirit, but is this not part of being human?

There’s nothing worse than clashing with another person over beliefs. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unpleasant, and discussions usually leave a taste of dissatisfaction on the lips of both parties. It can be a downright deal breaker. Both almost always walk away defeated, knowing that there will probably never exist a middle ground.

An interesting example of this juxtaposition can be found here, in this NBC News report about the power of prayer that aired a few weeks ago, ironically, right around Christmas.

http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=nn_cyn_power_prayer_141223

What do you think? Whose team are you on? People defy odds every day, don’t they? What is the role of your own belief system?

Moreover, when someone tells you not to have hope, your dream’s never going to come true, or your aspirations are too lofty, do you stop dreaming? When a loved one is sick and the prognosis is bleak, do you just head home, crack open a beer, and say, ‘Oh, well. Win some, lose some’?

You don’t. You fight. You fight for what you need, you fight for what you believe, you fight for the best possible outcome.

So, if anyone ever approaches you with a pin, trying to pop that balloon that you’re holding, you just set it higher and clutch it even tighter.

Look at them and say, in the words of the great Stevie Wonder, This is mine. You can’t take it. 

And then you hold onto it for dear life.

To the Magic Makers

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the house

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even a mouse

 

Unless it’s the cat

Who’s eating the flowers

That he’ll puke on the floor

In a couple of hours

 

Or your daughter, who just needs

To be tucked in twice

Or three times, or four

But just once would be nice!

 

Or Daddy just barreling

Up from the basement

With Santa’s great haul

For the children’s amazement

 

And then there is you

Trying to keep it together

With ten plates of cookies

And checking the weather

 

And cooking the food

Wondering whether they’ll like it

Stirring some egg nog

But hoping to spike it

 

And wrapping the things

Wondering when it will end

And majorly question

If Santa’s your friend

 

You scrub and you sweep

To ensure all is well

And place all the presents

So shit just looks swell

 

Take a bite of the cookies

And gnaw on the carrot

Then put it back down

So that no one will hear it

 

Then you climb into bed

With a sigh on your face

Too tired to know

That you’ve won the race

 

You wake in the morning

To giggles and screams

And facial expressions

You’ve never quite seen

 

And they smile and wail

And say “Look at that!”

Then you nod like a dummy

And fix the placemat

 

And they dance and they fiddle

And laugh with delight

And have no damn idea

You were up half the night

 

And you could be just bitter –

You know that it’s true

Take a drink to your room

And tell everyone to screw.

 

But there’d be no magic

Did you not bust your rear

To pick up the XMen and

Food for reindeer

 

And that Snow Glow Elsa,

(She’s been asking since fall)

Or the Spider Man figure

That shoots webs at the wall

 

Then a calm rushes over

As the magic goes by

And you look at their smiles

And feel you could cry

 

And it doesn’t much matter

Now all’s said and done

That you’ve broken your ass

Just for them to have fun

 

And so people could eat

And drink and relax

And share a few moments

That surely won’t last

 

The love there just gets you

And you cannot be blue

When you realize you’re Santa,

That Santa is YOU

Celebrating Christmas Past

When I think of Christmas, I think of my grandmother’s house – a two-story in the city, crowded and loud, its kitchen filled with ten more people than reasonably fit inside, with wooden and metal folding chairs placed all around (and beyond) the table.

When a guest arrived, four people had to relinquish their seats to clear the door. That cold blast of air brought love in from the outside – neighbors with cookies, friends of my grandfather, or the Avon lady. The scent of their leather coats hung in the chilly air.

The floor was linoleum, probably, and the metal chairs scraped, just as you’d imagine.

Poster-board decorations, dog-eared from years of use, some with faded velvety finishes, hung on the walls. Electric candles that bubbled water sat in each drafty window.

The light was harsh. The stove sat alone on a wall, and the big steel doors of the ‘icebox’ swung open and closed, attempting to satisfy the hungry crowd. Laughter crested and fell between the clanking of plates and glasses. Some would share chairs or sit on laps to secure what little room they could find. Others just stood and ate.

Holidays1There were deviled eggs, inordinately large bowls of salad, weathered baking pans filled with stuffed shells and veal parmigiana, and bread and butter. My grandfather would pour some Budweiser into an hourglass-shaped juice glass and push it towards me.

After dinner, my grandmother would make it a point to seat the kids in the middle of the floor, making everyone ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at each present we opened. It would later become a running joke.

My grandfather would retire to his recliner and turn on the TV -probably a football game – or play music. I’d sit with him, usually, no matter what he’d watch. He’d hand me those Columbia House stamps, the ones you’d used to choose your “10 Free Albums”, and a piece of cardboard on which to stick them. Every so often, he’d get me seven or eight cassettes of my own, which I carried around in a case that may as well have been filled with gold bars.

He’d play Fats Domino, Connie Francis, and Bobby Darin on the eight-track – in the house, in the yard, in the car. Wherever he was, he brought his music (the way I’d later bring mine). And we’d sing. He’d rib me for “knowing all the words all the time”.

My grandmother would eventually coerce everyone into a round of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, complete with hand motions, though Christmas carols already crackled through a radio by the sink.

She would convince you that you needed a second plate of food – or a third – while my mother and aunt scuttled to clean the dirty dishes and clear the table.

My father and uncles would sit in the living room, talking in a frequency only understood by sports fans, or complained about ‘the alternator’, or ‘the radiator’, or the politicians. It was a language I would grow to learn.

And then my cousins and I would retire to an empty room or hallway to comb our Barbies, change their clothes, compare our Cabbage Patch Kids, and, of course, make up a dance to perform, mid-kitchen, for the entire family. We’d cartwheel and split in our footed tights, making the best of our nervous energy as we practiced.

From the kitchen, we’d hear a stray “What the Christ?” or a “Vaffanculo!” from my grandmother, which I won’t translate, because it’s Christmas. And then she’d laugh, with her hand covering her heart, talking fondly of her parents, or the fixes my uncles got into as children, as if she were trying to keep her joy from spilling out. She had the most beautiful laugh. It matched the twinkle in her eyes.

And my grandfather would play his eight-tracks, and snap his fingers, and take his Polaroids. And they’d slip me quarters and candy, even though it was Christmas Day.

Then I’d go home, bleary-eyed, with a bag full of ripped boxes, and sleep. And spend the rest of the week feeling the magic slowly wear off.

They’re all just echoes now – the eight-tracks, the aluminum pans, my grandmother’s laughter. Sometimes I close my eyes and wonder how their voices would sound in my house, whether she’d yell, “Steph, what the Christ?” if I wasn’t serving the soup fast enough, or if my grandfather would provide my kids a steady stream of bread and butter, just like he did with us.

And even though I’d sometimes give my left leg to have them back for a day – even a few hours – I know that they’re here. They’re here whenever I kiss my kids goodnight, when I cook a meal, when I smile at a stranger. They’re here.

So if you’re at all feeling like you may be missing the joy of those passed this season, rest assured that you’re not.

It’s just inside you now, and all around you.

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