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Michael Chiklis (#110 of 12)

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 11, "Magical Thinking"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 11, “Magical Thinking”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 11, “Magical Thinking”

After “Orphans,” a surprisingly confident and empathetic outing that will almost certainly go down as the best episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, “Magical Thinking” finds the series resorting to its usual bag of boring, hyperbolically over-plotted tricks. As with a number of prior episodes, a lot of stuff happens in “Magical Thinking”—a major character is introduced out of nowhere, a series regular abruptly dies, a game-changing business deal is brokered—to weirdly little effect. There’s a fatuous rat-a-tat ticker-tape vibe to this series: bam, bam, bam, then nothing. One could be kind and call the plot progression “free associative,” but that freedom of association only leads us down an avenue of busy repetition. As “Orphans” memorably showed us that less is more, even on a historically “more, more, more” kind of series like Freak Show.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 9, "Tupperware Party Massacre"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 9, “Tupperware Party Massacre”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 9, “Tupperware Party Massacre”

The mind tends to wander when it’s unengaged, and while watching this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, titled “Tupperware Party Massacre,” you may be inclined to wonder throughout the typically atypical murder sequences and arbitrary character epiphanies how this series is written. Are a variety of outré buzzwords scribbled on flashcards, loaded into a canon, and then fired against the wall of an interior shooting range, with any cards that manage to land face up chosen as the center of any given week’s theoretical emphasis? Is each week’s episode the result of something planted in a time capsule that’s been purchased randomly by the show’s writers off of Craigslist? Readers have accused me of not getting the joke, of missing the gloriously queer anarchy of a series that subversively refuses to play by the three-act rules. But this is franchise anarchy, boutique “outrage,” with signifiers deliberately planted to appease those who’re resigned to love it regardless of the specifics. Freak Show plays to disenfranchised liberals in a manner as cynical as that in which those unwatchable Christian films court conservatives.

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

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

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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.

Sons of Anarchy Recap Season 7, Episode 12, "Red Rose"

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Sons of Anarchy Recap: Season 7, Episode 12, “Red Rose”

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Sons of Anarchy Recap: Season 7, Episode 12, “Red Rose”

Those white tennis shoes. Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) has worn his trademark ivory sneakers throughout Sons of Anarchy. Those pearly kicks have been privy to many a bad deed, and sometimes they’ve gotten splattered in blood for good measure, looking like some minimalist Jackson Pollock painting. The guy must have a whole closet full of them on standby. “Red Rose” opens on the SAMCRO president lacing up his shoes, a quiet warning that his pristine foot canvases will once again be tainted by the carnage to come.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 7, "Test of Strength"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

“Test of Strength” is a work of bookkeeping, an episode intended to remind audiences who Freak Show’s denizens precisely are before a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone’s accounted for this week, and the narrative, busy and lacking in urgency, serves as a representative reminder of why Freak Show has grown so interminable: The characters’ actions exist in respective vacuums, appearing to affect nothing. A flamboyant murder can be quickly swept away, leading to the next episode, which starts at a moment of relative peace, builds toward another murder or betrayal, only to reset yet again. Characters are constantly plotting against one another, but this often scans as weirdly harmless, because a “surprise” atrocity will reliably render the prospective conspiracies moot. American Horror Story grows tedious every season, excluding the high-water mark that’s Asylum, but no prior installment has flat-lined as quickly as Freak Show. It’s an impressive costume and set pageant, and little more.

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

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

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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 4, "Edward Mordrake (Part 2)"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

“Edward Mordrake (Part 2)” finds Freak Show wallowing in the sort of dull, meaningless outlandishness that usually sets in right around the halfway mark of any given season of American Horror Story. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seem to forget that if everything is “shocking” and “subversive,” then nothing is, as there’s no contrast between conventionality and deviation to produce the sort of dramatic friction that’s necessary to sustain something like 95 percent of all fiction. The problem with American Horror Story writ large is that there’s never any patience exhibited, never any sense of shocks being actively prepared for. For a few episodes, this speed-freakiness doesn’t necessarily matter, as TV shows are obviously playing the long game and need to instill in the viewer a notion of the stakes from the outset. But it’s becoming clear that there aren’t any stakes in Freak Show, and that the characters, who are barely characters, are going to say and do things whenever it’s convenient, because Murphy and Falchuk can’t ever be bothered to construct a coherent scenario with which to govern their admittedly impressive sense of atmosphere.

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)”

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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: Freak Show Recap Episode 2, "Massacres and Matinees"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 2, “Massacres and Matinees”

FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 2, “Massacres and Matinees”

After a premiere that logically provided us a 101 on the characters and their blossoming resentments, the second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show allows us to leisurely soak in the considerable atmospherics of Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) financially imperiled Cabinet of Curiosities. “Massacres and Matinees” opens with a gorgeous master shot of the sideshow that pans from the top of one of the tents to provide us with a full daytime survey of the grounds, which includes the nearby swamp and its accompanying water and wild grass, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a great variety of red and blue striped tents and the dusty trails connecting them, and even a pickup truck with the word “circus” painted across it. This image is lit by autumnal sunlight that’s equally suggestive of dawn and dusk, emphasizing both beauty and decay, particularly as embodied by the broken-down vehicles and the exhausted workers shuffling between tents. There’s no doubt that Ray Bradbury would kill for such an iconic and suggestive portrait of the comingling of Americana evil and innocence.

T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield

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T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield
T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield

I’ll talk about Big Love in more detail starting June 11, when the House debuts a new recap series, “Big Love Tuesdays.” For now I’ll just say that in the first five episodes of the HBO drama’s second season, it has evolved from a damn good show to a nearly great one. In its first season, Big Love seemed reluctant to tell the story of a polygamous family without leaning on expository crutches; to make certain episodes happen, it occasionally lapsed into plot contrivance or needless melodrama. But in its sophomore outing, Big Love moves with the confidence of a series that has figured out what it wants to be and how to get there. As the House recap title indicates, HBO, in its infinite wisdom, has stranded the show on Monday, a night where even Six Feet Under couldn’t do much, ratings-wise, so I’ll sound the alarm now: Don’t miss it.

Big Love parses relationships between people in a family setup that few Americans have experienced, and makes it comprehensible and believable. Even if you’ve never had to deal with a third mother or a sister wife, the series illustrates the difficulty of navigating these relationships with subtle writing and even better acting (especially from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill Paxton’s ambitious retailer, Bill Henrickson). It still rankles when the two younger wives call Tripplehorn’s Barb “boss lady”; but no other series could concieve a scene as original as the one where Goodwin’s Margie tells Barb that she understands her limits in her uneasily flirtatious relationship with Barb and Bill’s teenage son. Just as striking is the fact that Big Love really understands the sheer passion of fundamentalism—of giving in to something larger than yourself and dedicating yourself to that abstract dream. While the characters’ polygamous lifestyle puts them out-of-step with mainstream America, they speak unironically of following God’s calling and having visions and abstaining from alcohol or sex before marriage. Unlikely as it may sound, given the multiple spouses and the subtextual arguments in favor of gay marriage, America’s fundamentalist Christians have no better friend than Big Love, which argues that the passion they feel for God is as valid as any other emotion. At the same time, though, the series is not afraid to depict polygamy and fundamentalism’s discontents, represented most notably in its teenage characters, portrayed by Douglas Smith, Amanda Seyfried and Daveigh Chase. All cope with losing their faith in the culture that raised them, and fighting against a secular world that enfolds them every time they leave the house.