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Angela Bassett (#110 of 17)

Summer of ’91 John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood

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Summer of ’91: John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood

Columbia Pictures

Summer of ’91: John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood

The idea behind John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was simple enough: to translate the reality of “hood life” to film in much the same way that the Eazy-E song of the same name did to music. But while Eazy-E and the rest of his N.W.A. compatriots’ penchant for juvenile jokes and hell-raising—best exhibited by their infamous music videos for “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Straight Outta Compton”—helped catapult them to worldwide fame, such antics limited the appeal of their social commentary. John Singleton took similar concerns and tried to reach out to a broader audience by creating a conventional, self-serious melodrama that reveals the daily life of a Los Angeles kid learning, true to the lyrics of the Ice Cube single that led the film’s soundtrack, “how to survive in South Central.”

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 13, "Curtain Call"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 13, “Curtain Call”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 13, “Curtain Call”

“Curtain Call” ends American Horror Story: Freak Show on an unsurprisingly dour and haphazard note, reveling in the show’s most annoying ongoing assertion: that the freaks are “just like everyone else.” No, they aren’t. A man with flippers for hands who’s lived in a circus all his life fantasizing about joining conventional American society isn’t like a man born into that society unquestioningly with the privilege to take it for granted. These are profoundly different emotional experiences, and, if this sounds like over-literal nitpicking, bear in mind that American Horror Story goes to great efforts to congratulate itself on its “other”-friendly symbolism. The freaks are clearly meant to represent a great variety of minorities, and their often boring “magical negro” cuddliness is meant to attest to the inherent unifying decency of the human species regardless of variation.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 12, "Show Stoppers"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

Freak Show, which is now all but certain to go down in the record books as the weakest season of American Horror Story so far, helps to confirm an unofficial rule about the series at large: The more a season actively utilizes its chosen setting, the better it is. Asylum explicitly, cannily exploited the fears we have of a mental institution, positioning it as a convincing, disturbing barometer for social ills. Murder House played with most of the haunted-house-movie tropes, adding a dash of kink to a genre that, as of late, too often resists it. Coven, the first really uneven season, appeared to be driven by clichés that are more routinely associated with superheroes (particularly the X-Men) than witches. And Freak Show, apart from the occasional ghoulish flourish, really needn’t be set at the titular grounds at all, as much of its conflicts, such as they are, derive from isolated betrayals and killings that are often accompanied by the obligatory speech about freaks’ rights. A freak show is a potentially great setting for a horror series, but it’s hardly mattered here, as we’ve rarely seen a performance of the show, and backstage shenanigans are essentially nonexistent.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 10, "Orphans"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 10, “Orphans”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 10, “Orphans”

“Orphans” finds American Horror Story: Freak Show taking a surprisingly earnest detour from its usual preachy, ultra-violently “relevant” shenanigans. The episode is mostly concerned with pinhead Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in the wake of her husband Salty’s (Christopher Neiman) sudden death in his sleep, which is to say that, for the first time in eons, the series is centered on an actual narrative idea that serves to unify most of its tangents. Acting out, thrashing about the freak show, Pepper is inconsolable. Her depression, coupled with the fact that the freaks are finally appearing to notice that they’re dying left and right since the arrival of Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), spurs Elsa (Jessica Lange) to talk strategy with Desiree (Angela Bassett), which leads to a conversation about the formation of the freak show as the two knock back schnapps.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 8, "Blood Bath"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

“Blood Bath” is another of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s housecleaning episodes, in which a bunch of characters are killed to remarkably little effect in the services of, well, that’s debatable. To reinvigorate viewer interests after a holiday hiatus? To thin out the ranks of the major players for a season climax that’s theoretically right around the narrative bend? Impossible to tell, because, as we’ve already established, the series has no rules; it’s adrift in a manner that recalls prior seasons of American Horror Story such as Murder House and, especially, Coven. Whenever a plot thread is threatening to cohere or gain momentum, along comes a killing to render any prior information moot. This sort of upsetting of the applecart can represent an exhilarating break from the rigors of TV or film conventions if timed right, but it can also signal desperate wallowing if overindulged. Imagine Psycho if Norman Bates was killed right after Marion’s mysterious murder, and we never returned to his story, and then Sam Loomis was unexpectedly killed, and then Marion’s sister soon after him. The initial shock of Marion’s second-act killing would devolve into tedious cacophony, and Freak Show has been in that state for the last few episodes.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 5, "Pink Cupcakes"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

“Pink Cupcakes” is a marked improvement over last week’s episode of Freak Show, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2).” For starters, there’s something like an actual plot, though it inelegantly crisscrosses back and forth between each freak’s reliably grueling plight-of-the-week. More importantly, Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) presence on the freak show’s campgrounds provides the series with a significant representation of the “straight” world that’s often discussed, but rarely seen, casting shades of actual contrast and conflict on the gruesome chicanery. With the series belaboring the freaks’ theoretically unexpected likability at every possible turn, it’s the villains who stand to walk away with Freak Show, as their unapologetically one-dimensional mugging comes to represent a sort of refreshing truth in advertising.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 3, "Edward Mordrake (Part 1)"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 3, “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 3, “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)”

With “Edward Mordrake (Part 1),” American Horror Story: Freak Show plays to its strengths, sounding its themes through action rather than talk. Jimmy’s (Evan Peters) already reliably tedious, half-true blathering about the equality and sameness of freaks is mercifully limited to a speech given over Meep’s funeral; mostly, we’re allowed to regard the freaks simply as characters, with accompanying pleasures and demons, rather than as potential monuments to retrospective political actualization. Narratively, this episode’s a mess, as it introduces half a dozen threads and is clearly doing a great deal of bookkeeping for the season at large. But this structural looseness, which favors vignettes that stand on their own, also affirms the central premise of aloneness: These characters are bundled together on a cramped makeshift campground yet they’re emotionally solitary, trapped within their individual obsessions. “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)” is aware of the reassuring safety, and of the stifling social enclosure, of living with family.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 12, "Go to Hell"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

FX

American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

The penultimate episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell” finds the series still desperately scrambling to introduce busy conceits. Theoretically, we should be eagerly anticipating the revelation of Fiona’s (Jessica Lange) successor as the next Supreme, but how can we? As an audience, we never know if any event “counts,” or if it will be reversed to satisfy a new creative whimsy. The first two or three hundred character resurrections were a cheeky way of illustrating Coven’s ’s willingness to screw with viewer expectation, but that device, along with the witches’ highly varying procession of week-to-week powers, has long ago devolved into tedium. And somewhere down the line, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also lost a valuable sense of pace: Major events seem to rush by now in a barely coherent tizzy, while negligible vignettes eat up a significant portion of running time.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 11, "Protect the Coven"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

FX

American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

With only two episodes remaining, it’s probably fair to say that American Horror Story: Coven has evolved in a fashion opposite to that of the prior American Horror Story: Asylum. Where the latter gradually discarded its various narrative convolutions to arrive at a conclusion of surprising emotional purity, the former opened with a confident sense of parody that’s been gradually cluttered up with a variety of desperately WTF tonal switcheroos. It’s difficult at this point to evade the suspicion that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk prize the moment, the here and the now, above any particular thematic coherence—a development that won’t come as much of a surprise to those who watched Murphy’s initially addictive, eventually monotonously “outrageous” series Nip/Tuck. Which is to say that this week’s episode of Coven, “Protect the Coven,” is eventful without being especially involving, as Murphy and Falchuk’s game of “anything goes” appears to be very close to stalling out. If anything can happen, then nothing’s really at stake, as the writers have proven themselves perfectly willing to reverse or outright ignore any past development that has the potential to impede a moment of quick theoretical shock value or novelty.