AMC’s latest foray into the people-with-exceedingly-weird-jobs reality subgenre is Freakshow—which should be familiar to those who experienced the short-lived Freaks at O’Sheas. While it’s a milieu that should lend itself to breezy high camp, it sometimes feels like spackle in the network’s schedule around The Walking Dead airings while we all wait for a new season of Mad Men.
The channel turns its few remaining non-zombie-focused cameras on Todd Ray and his Venice Beach Freakshow, with a cast of 10 that runs the gamut from glamorous Las Vegas glass-eater Brianna Belladonna to the haggard veteran Murrugun the Mystic to Ray’s fresh-faced daughter, Asia.
Ostensibly, Freakshow is a look inside the family dynamic that drives the crew of self-appointed outsiders. But through the first three episodes, the show is a disjointed affair, relying on clunky and forced episode-by-episode themes to tease out a narrative instead of letting interpersonal drama develop. The problem, really, is that producers focus on the awkward, stumbling Ray, whose lack of charisma as a television performer is palpable despite his well-meaning affection for the history of the genre.
In the second episode, there are genuinely sweet moments between the veterans and Asia as she tries to learn the ancient art of sword swallowing. More of that could give the show a compelling angle, even if they don’t delve into the obvious and fascinating question of why people choose to dedicate their lives to acts that involve shoving sharp metal into one’s gullet.
That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of the psychology of sideshow. It’s all but a collegiate case study when Morgue—the skinny guy who looks like a fill-in bass player for Marilyn Manson and shoves meathooks through his face—wilts when Asia wants him to come roller skating, confessing he spends all his time off sequestered in his apartment because being out in society terrifies him.
The inherent hilarity of a guy named “Morgue” chilling at a roller rink aside, the scene plays out like a minor breakthrough when he spends his downtime doing something that doesn’t involve controlled regurgitation.
If the show could ditch the more hokey elements and put its sideshow stars front-and-center, it could develop into a compelling look at fringe players with a far more exciting hook than taxidermists or hand-fisherman. A hook that goes, say, through the nasal cavity and out the mouth.
Freakshow 9:30 p.m. Thursdays on AMC, AMCTV.com/Shows/Freakshow.