‘Pink Cupcakes’: Recap of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

To disguise Dora’s death and hide her body, Gloria decides to lay a bed of narcissus daffodils in her garden. It doesn’t escape me that the flower decided upon was called narcissus, considering Dandy’s mental state. I doubt there’s a strain of lily called sociopathy.


With our beloved Twisty gone, this week we needed another character to fill his big clown shoes. (Big in intrigue and interest, not necessarily size. But sure, that too.) And I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that this week that character is Gloria.

Gloria happens upon Dora’s dead body laying in a pool of her own blood, when it is a quarter passed seven in the morning and she “doesn’t hear the percolator on.” (Best line of the episode.) Dandy  tries, not very well, to pretend it wasn’t him, but Gloria knows what her son is. Though she willfully spends most of her days in the dark when it comes to Dandy, the discovery of her deceased housekeeper forcers her to deal with his ways. She is so disgusted with what he did, she screams at him, “I don’t want to see your face for the rest of the day!” (Okay so maybe that is the best line of the show.)

To disguise Dora’s death and hide her body, Gloria decides to lay a bed of narcissus daffodils in her garden. It doesn’t escape me that the flower decided upon was called narcissus, considering Dandy’s mental state. I doubt there’s a strain of lily called sociopathy.

While dropping the bulbs in the dirt that covers Dora’s body, Gloria sheds light on Dandy’s ahem “illness,” and states that it is due to inbreeding amongst the “extremely affluent.” As a way of keeping money in the family, cousins marry cousins and there is bound to be crazy or two in the mix. She even goes so far to say that it is a “rite of passage to have a psychotic in the line.”

Jesus. I really just think all of Gloria’s lines this week were extraordinary. But it does explain why she’s borderline apathetic towards Dandy and his murderous streak. She’s not happy with it but she basically accepts it as an inevitability, especially since it turns out that Dandy’s father was also a crazy killer who ended up hanging himself.

Another telling scene of Gloria’s was a phone call with Dora’s daughter, Regina, wondering why Dora missed their weekly phone call. Regina is played by Gabourey Sidibe, who delivers a hugely mediocre performance. After Gloria tells Regina that Dora is just remarkably busy out buying winter squash all day, she asks Regina to recall on her life playing with Dandy and what Gloria was like as a mother. Regina says that Dandy bit all of his maids and Gloria was never around. In her defense, Gloria retorts she raised her son like she was raised. But that one day, Dandy called for her, but since she didn’t know how to handle it, she sent his governess in. Through tears she then says that Dandy never called for her again.

I really wish we could have heard more, but to Gloria’s confession, Regina says, “I’m feeling really uncomfortable, so I’m going to go now.”  (WAS THIS THE BEST LINE OF THE SHOW?! I DON’T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE! As indifferent as I am about Gabourey’s performance here, the deliberateness with which that line was delivered was just hilarious.)

But what Gloria divulged does shed light on a lot of her motives. She has experience dealing with crazies in the family AND she feels pretty damn guilty about her absence in Dandy’s upbringing. Her guilt is what fuels her to help her son, and her experience in hiding bodies may be her greatest skill. At this point I’m wondering how far her aiding Dandy will go.

In a less stimulating plot line, Desiree had a miscarriage. She had said miscarriage while she and Jimmy were fooling around. They were fooling around because Jimmy had just been rejected by Maggie when she was trying to warn him about Stanley. Maggie was trying to warn Jimmy about Stanley because at the beginning of the episode Stanley confirmed his plans to kill all the freaks and sell them to the oddity collector.

So Desiree went to the really nice doctor from previous episodes and found out she is “100% woman.” The excess testosterone in her body gave her an enlarged ladypart and the excess estrogen trying to battle the testosterone gave her an extra boob. She was rather relieved to find out she has always been a woman. Due to the enlarged ladypart that resembled a “dingaling” (her word), she was mislabeled a boy at birth. I can’t imagine that made for an easy life for her. Well that, and the very obvious third boob.

Desiree was super pumped to have a baby with Dell until Ethel told her about Jimmy and how Desiree hates Dell because, I’m sure, of all of the stuff we learned about Dell in Edward Mordrake: Part One. She leaves Dell, tells her she’s going to have her dingaling removed and have a normal life with someone else. Dell gets pissed and mutilates the doctor’s hands. Oh, and Dell’s gay.


This bit is mostly interesting to me because of how the word “freak” is thrown around in this episode. Desiree seemed to come to terms with her freakness since she found out she was 100% woman. She calls Dell the real freak because of the way he treated Ethel and Jimmy. When Dell is hanging out at the local seedy gay bar, his artistescortloverboy Andy aka Matt Bomer tells him he already hangs out with freaks so he should come out as gay. Dell refers to himself as a freak for being gay.

I guess I’m not sure what comment this is saying about being gay or being a hermaphrodite.  Why can’t Desiree love her body the way that it is? She just found out she was a woman, great, but up until now she’s seemed to own who and what she was. I do, however, appreciate that Dell is a freak not for being gay but for being a overall shitty person.

Oh yeah, and Dandy killed Matt Bomer. God that’s such a shame. They made a ridiculously good looking couple. Dandy is coming into his own as a murderer, mirroring his perfect body with how perfect a killer he’s going to be. His voiceover admits, “The clown was put on earth to show me the way.” The way to kill, of course. I’m glad that Dandy sees the silver lining. His mentor is dead, but everything happens for a reason, right?! Delusion at its finest.


– Even Stanley’s fantasies are pathetic. You can’t even be the guest of honor in your own delusion. (Cue another Office reference.)

– Why are Maggie and Stanley together? Their partnership is odd to me for some reason. I think that story needs to be fleshed out more because I’m really not buying why she would help him at all.

– There was a lot of talk this episode about television, and I caught a few references to TV affecting culture in previous episodes this season. Elsa states she’d rather be “boiled in oil” than appear on TV and calls it the “death of art and civilization.” Why all the hostility? I’m inclined to believe our showrunners think it’d be a gas to make fun of the genre in which they’re participating and that’s why all this talk. Great.

– As much as Elsa talks about how much she hates the idea of television, she cannot handle a live audience. Every time we’ve had her in front of a group of people who don’t know her, she falls apart. Coming from a person with a degree in theatre, people like Elsa exist and maybe they should just quit while they’re ahead…

– AND as Elsa was crumbling before our very eyes, the line she sang from the familiar Bowie song “Life on Mars?” was: But the film is a saddening bore. I see what you did there, RMurph.

‘Edward Mordrake (Part 2)’: Recap of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

So he went out on the rampage. Killing, kidnapping, imprisoning. But all in the effort of stealing back the children and making them happy. So of course, the tragedy that is Twisty the Clown could not elude Mordrake’s vile visage, and the demon wept for Twisty to join their afterlife freak show. Cue Michael Scott.


This episode made me feel like Michael Scott. Season five, episode eight. Toby is back from Costa Rica. And this happens.

And that’s what happened to me during this episode. Fuckin’ Mordrake. He found his freak, all right. He found it in the best, most compelling character American Horror Story has seen in a long time, maybe ever.

Ole two-face Mordrake abandoned Ethel last episode in his search for the perfect freak, and green fogs his way through Legless Suzi, Paul the Illustrated Seal, Pepper and her pinhead companion (brother?) and presumably the rest of our freaks until he gets to Elsa Mars, who is expecting him.

Of course, she’s expecting the wrong dark-haired man. Maggie Esmerelda told her to welcome a man from out of town (though we know it’s Stanley, who hasn’t arrived yet) that will make her famous, and Elsa thinks it’s the man in front of her with a cane, a cape and a top hat. I mean, honestly, Elsa. Your desire for fame is making you totally blind to think that a man from the 50s would be walking around like that. (Though I suppose it is Halloween… MOVING ON.)

Mordrake coaxes Elsa’s deepest and darkest secrets out of her and HOLY COW they’re super dark. Back in the Weinmar Republic in the 30s, Elsa couldn’t get work as an actress (shocker) so she took up as a dominatrix in quite a freaky house. We got a dude in a bra, we got a lady peeing in a bowl to a dude jerking it, we have a pregnant chick and marionettes and I mean really though! All under one dank and dirty roof! Elsa’s been involved in freak shows her whole life, it seems.

So Elsa was paid very well to put men in collars and make them crawl around like dogs and impale their buttcheeks on a nail-laden toilet seat. Then she was super pumped to get her close-up in a solo porn flick, but she was drugged “enough to understand, not enough to dull the pain” aaaand a couple of deviants with pantyhose over their faces cut off her legs below the knee.

It mostly sounds like a really weird dream, but apparently Elsa starred in the first snuff film. Her big screen debut somehow made the rounds of miscreants throughout Europe. (I say somehow because how were copies of film made in the 30s? Certainly couldn’t burn it onto a DVD. Again, moving on.) In the same breath in which Elsa laments the loss of her legs, she whispers, “I was a star.”This bitch really needs to get her priorities straight.

Not surprisingly, Mordrake’s Visage chooses her as the freak most “befouled of soul,” a prospect Elsa freely accepts at this point. While she begs Mordrake to take her, he is distracted by music.

In the glade of Twisty’s corner of the woods, he and Dandy have set up a carnival of their own. But instead of using magic to entertain their captives audience, Dandy is prepared to try what it’s actually like to cut a woman in half. Oh, and that woman he’s going to cut in half is Maggie Esmerelda. She and Jimmy found their way to Twisty’s twisted corner when Twisty ran after followed his lady captive fan as she was trying to run far far away get some concessions, and they decided to help.

In short order Jimmy saves the day, and the captives audience members escape get some cotton candy. (I’m done now, I promise.) He himself is not saved, however, as Twisty captures him and moments before he is going to impale the Lobster Boy, Edward Mordrake green fogs into his creepy trailer. Mordrake then commands Twisty to take off his mask and tell him his freaky story.

Twisty’s backstory wasn’t very surprising to me, but it was still rather sad to watch. I said from the beginning that all he wanted was an audience, and that was more or less correct. Twisty’s sole objective was to make the children happy. Some weird pedophile carnies were jealous of how the kids played with him (leave it to AHS, right?) so they drove Twisty out when he was at the height of his career. Word spread that Twisty himself was the pedophile and no one would hire him. So he moved from the bourgeois West Chester, New York and back home to Jupiter, Florida with a new money-making venture for his penniless self, and he pitched homemade toys to a toy store owner. SURPRISE! It is the same store owner that he beheaded earlier in the season.

Now, Twisty confirmed he was dropped on his head as a baby by his drunken mother. So of course, he’s a little slow, but he’s not a threat by nature. When he arrived back in Jupiter, he found our friends at Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities and was, yet again, cast out by the freaks. The freak show was actually getting a steady audience, and Twisty thought the freaks were stealing the children from him again.

So he went out on the rampage. Killing, kidnapping, imprisoning. But all in the effort of stealing back the children and making them happy. So of course, the tragedy that is Twisty the Clown could not elude Mordrake’s vile visage, and the demon wept for Twisty to join their afterlife freak show. Cue Michael Scott.

I’m not sure that anyone but John Carroll Lynch would’ve wrenched my heart the way he did in that scene. I’m also not sure if I feel that way because I have a soft spot for Norm Gunderson, but regardless his performance was moving, tragic and overall appropriate. Twisty is like Lennie Small in a clown mask: he has the physical presence to be intimidating, but a solid gold heart at his core. I am glad that the show gave us a character with such depth, but I’m infuriated that the show took away that character so quickly.

At the same time, if their plan was to reveal Twisty’s past and keep him alive, I would have been even more infuriated. The whole reason Twisty was the most compelling character in this season was because we knew very little about him. His silence WAS utterly provocative! Given the circumstances, I’m glad he died after he told his story. But otherwise, I’m mostly disappointed.

The one ray of sunshiny intrigue here is that Dandy is now going to rise to the occasion and fill Twisty’s shoes, just never in the way that Twisty would have intended. The unfortunate part of Twisty’s silence is that Dandy never knew his motives, so weirdo Dandy just assumed that Twisty liked to kill like he did. Using Twisty’s mask as an alter-ego, Dandy can finally fulfill his desire to murder and free himself from a boring life. See ya, Dora. We barely knew ye.

The town now thinks that Jimmy Darling killed Twisty, and they all came out to thank him. They shook his lobster hand and gave the pinheads a bundt cake and all is well and good. WHAT.

Another infuriating moment: THE SEASON CAN NOW END. It feels like all the major plot points of this show has been fulfilled. The freak show’s major conflicts are taken care of, since they’re no longer ostracized by the town and are selling tickets now. And even though the episode ended with a creepy shot of Dandy’s murderous glee, it could really serve as a great “Oh shit what’s gonna happen to the town?!” conclusion. American Horror Story never seems to know how to pace itself, and this is another example. And now with its most interesting character gone, I’m not sure how I feel about watching these overt plot lines and misguided musical numbers. This was probably the best episode of the season so far, and at the exact same time it was by far the most annoying. If this is any indication of the rest of the season, we’re in for a bumpy ride.


– For all my cynicism, Dandy is really great to watch, mainly because Finn Wittrock is playing him beautifully.

– What was the point of having Patti LaBelle as Dora? It could have been anyone. I mean, she was great, but that casting choice was entirely unnecessary.

– I really hope the writers bring more tension in these stories soon. This Elsa vs. Bette and Dot stuff is really not doing it for me the way it seems they want it to.

‘Edward Mordrake (Part 1)’: Recap of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

Who is Mordrake going to kill? He mentions that his vile visage is looking for, “A pure freak, corrupted of flesh, befouled of soul.” The most interesting development would be if it were one of our leading freaks, but it would also derail the season pretty early on if it were someone we know well.


Welcome again, American Horror Story‘s annual Halloween episodes! It is rather fitting for a show with the word “horror” in the title to make a big deal about Halloween every season. Typically these episodes are just totally batshit crazytown, in their content and also in their plot development. The way that AHS falls on the calendar, there are no more than three episodes in a season before the end of October, and because of that a season’s flow is determined by the Halloween episodes. We’ve had a few episodes to get introduced to the characters and the world, and the (usually two-part) Halloween episodes serve as a launching pad for the rest of the season. Since this is traditionally the case, these episodes are totally stuffed with content from every single plot line.

This year’s Halloween episodes center around a carnie superstition that if a freak were to perform on Halloween, they would summon the spirit of Edward Mordrake, a regular dude with a devil face on the back of his head. When he is summoned, he will take one carnie with him to hell. Interestingly enough this episode features a lot of real life “freaks,” as shown in the first scene, one of which being the episode’s namesake, Mr. Mordrake. I should say he’s at least real in that there’s one account of him known to history; whether or not he’s real or legend is up for debate.

So of course Dot doesn’t care about the superstition and insists they rehearse anyway, but before she could practice her teenage female angst (also, it officially states that she was singing “Criminal” by Fiona Apple on her songbook in the episode. I REALLY DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT.) Elsa steals her thunder with green (!!!) eyeshadow and summons Seneca Crane Edward Mordrake.

Elsa’s ballsy move came from the help of a new fortune teller in town, Maggie Esmerelda, who is about as real as Elsa’s feet. Using clues scattered throughout her tent, Esmerelda very accurately recites Elsa’s life story and changes the ending to revitalize Elsa’s drive to perform that had been taken from her ever since Bette and Dot became the show’s headliners.

Though big ole Dell did not have much to do in this episode, we still learned a whole lot about him. Mostly that he can’t get it up. Pretty much ever. I guess he must’ve once, in order to conceive Jimmy Darling, but as far as we know that may have been the only time. Desiree recited a slew of his tried and true excuses when she was trying to get it on, and Ethel made mention of it as the reason why he and Desiree got into a fight. His impotence could really be the reason he’s such a general dick. We pretty much already knew he was a big dick, but we learn a lot more about his dickness through Ethel in this episode.

In her confession to Edward Mordrake, Ethel tells that Dell became her manager and convinced her to give up the act that made her happy and began manipulating her and her bushy chinstrap. He sunk as low as to sell tickets to Ethel’s birth of Jimmy, calling it a “Live Freak Birth” then sunk eeeeven lower when he goaded the audience, “Two bits to hold the monster baby! It’s a freak!”

I mean, really. What a dick. Let’s remember that Dell isn’t really a freak, not in the way that most of these characters are. He is only the Strong Man, after all, and I’d say he’s more bulky than strong. So Dell’s MO is to latch onto “freakish” women and make his living out of exploiting their abnormalities. He did it to Ethel years ago and he’s doing it still to Desiree. Fortunately for these two ladies, they are stronger than they seem and eventually stand up to the bulky leech.

Really though, it is about time the show focused more on Ethel. Earlier in the episode she learns she has advanced cirrhosis of the liver and has less than a year to live. Naturally, her response to her doctor saying, “Never drink a drop of alcohol again.” is to get wasted. It’s hard not to blame her, though, since we’ve learned so much about her past that it seems to be hard for her to believe that she’s got much to live for. All of the crazy Dell stuff aside, her scene with the doctor is telling to what her life has been like. As she’s crying after she hears her diagnosis, she says, “I’m not crying because of what you just told me. I’m crying because you’re the first doctor ever to treat me with respect. I just can’t help but thinking my whole life would’ve gone different if I had met you sooner.”

It really is rather heartbreaking, for her character and also when you look at what she’s saying in a larger societal context. In what way have people been labeled freaks or outcast throughout the years? And in what ways have people been damaged, physically or mentally, beyond repair because of their label?

It’s quite a credit to Kathy Bates (not that she really needs any, she’s obviously incredible) that she could carry such weighty, emotional scenes, make us feel really bad for her, while STILL using that cartoonish accent. Which, let us now confirm, is officially a Baltimore accent! Or, to hear her say it, Baldymore.

There was precious little Twisty and Dandy for my taste in this episode, but I’m hoping that for that reason they’ll be going nuts in Edward Mordrake Part 2. The last image of the episode is Twisty’s crazy eyes burrowing into the audience’s collective soul. Just terrifying.

Other large plot points:

– Dot’s head is getting quite large due to her newfound fame, so much so that she’s dreaming of getting rid of Bette altogether. I love that the two of them can dream together, as they can read each other’s minds. Though the one thing that I keep thinking is that it’s straight up murder, guys. I know it’s a dream, but c’mon, Dot. Of COURSE no doctor would consent to the amputation of another living, breathing, thinking human head. That being said, we are in an AHS world, so I suppose anything is possible.

– As we were introduced to Maggie Esmerelda, we were also introduced to her puppetmaster, Stanley. They’re both con artists in the world of fake medical anomalies, and when their fetal sasquatch is called out as a fraud they decide to go for the real deal and dispatch Maggie to Florida. So I guess they’re going to start killing people to make a quick buck? Makes sense.

– So who is Mordrake going to kill? He mentions that his vile visage is looking for, “A pure freak, corrupted of flesh, befouled of soul.” If that’s not Ethel, then who is it? The most interesting development would be if it were one of our leading freaks, but it would also derail the season pretty early on if it were someone we know well. Is it going to be one of our supporting freaks? After everything we know, it may be Dell, but would we miss him if he were to go so soon?


– There were two references to television becoming the popular entertainment medium in this episode, one being The Ed Sullivan Show and the other being Dragnet.  I’m not sure if this is the show furthering the point as TV is a reason that freak shows of old are no longer popular, or if the show is trying to say something larger about television.

– While Esmerelda is reading Elsa’s “fortune,” she mentions a “Marlena” as the person that stole Elsa’s career. I’m inclined to believe this is probably Marlene Dietrich, since they’d be of similar ages and both German-American. I mean, really, guys. Is that the only reason we made Elsa German? I miss Jess’s souther drawl.

–  The best line of the episode would have been Ethel’s tragic line, “Make him get out into the world I was afraid of.” if it weren’t for Dandy’s, “HOWDY DOODY?!” He’s really got a knack for show stealing.

– Guys I really don’t think I can get down with these modern songs sung in this show. Again, Bette and Dot’s songbook said, flat out, “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. BITCH WASN’T ALIVE YET. The song Elsa sings this episode is Lana Del Rey’s song “Gods & Monsters,” which features a lyric that says, “Living like Jim Morrison.” The Doors didn’t get popular until 1967. I mean. Come on.  What are we doing here. These songs are taking me right out of it. Every time.

– So Dandy doesn’t have it in him to kill a person. At least not yet. Dora really could have been his first non-feline victim, because she really was really pushing his buttons. I have a feeling she won’t be around for that much longer, though.

– I see a love triangle (quadrangle?) brewing! Dot seemed to be none too thrilled with the new, pretty face of Esmerelda among the tents. Obvs Dot has a thing for Jimmy, and OBVS Jimmy and Esmerelda are going to get it on.

– I really want to know what’s up with Stanley’s man parts. His viking warrior exlcaimed, “Holy Christ” when he took a look at what he was packing. Is it good? Is it bad? Who knows! #wersindallefreaks.

– Butt on TV! Yay!

‘Massacres and Matinees’: Recap of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

So, of course, someone named “Strong Man” is going to be met with a lot of estrogen-fueled flack. Here he comes, taking control, telling everyone what to do, punching people, introducing MATINEES! How dare he.


Sheesh, leave it to the Strong Man to swing his dick around, amirite? Wednesday night’s episode of AHS: Freak Show introduced us to said Dick Swinger (aka Dell Toledo aka Michael Chiklis) and his lovely wife, Tri-Tittied Hottie (aka Desiree Dupree aka Angela Bassett), and no sooner do they arrive do they start to piss people off. Elsa basically only allowed him to stay because the police were sniffing around and she thought a “strong male presence” would be beneficial to the carnival compound.

Newsflash! American Horror Story doesn’t do well with strong male presences. Whenever any male asserts misogynistic power over women it typically bodes ill for them. See: Dr. Threadson, Dr. Arden, Bloodyface Jr., frat boys on a bus, etcetera etcetera etcetera. (See what I did there? Double reference. Yesss.)

… Alright well I guess you could say that being on AHS in the first place doesn’t bode well for you. But nearly every woman in this entire series is redeemable, whereas only men that are put on the same level as women and regard them with respect have any redeeming qualities.

So, of course, someone named “Strong Man” is going to be met with a lot of estrogen-fueled flack. Here he comes, taking control, telling everyone what to do, punching people, introducing MATINEES! How dare he.

To his credit, his ideas turn out to be rather good. Unlike Elsa, who uses the Freak Show only as a vehicle for her grandiose delusions and, let’s face it, doesn’t know what she’s doing, Dell has been through the carnival circuit for years and actually knows how to put on a show. He introduces the matinee as a way to get out of the town-wide curfew and look what happens! Asses are in seats! He has actual showmanship that it is enticing, as opposed to last week’s damp introduction by Ethel Darling. And much to Elsa’s and her blue eyeshadow’s chagrin, Dot has actual talent, which is amazing enough to induce a 1950’s mosh pit. But it seems that Elsa and her eyeshadow are not going to wait around for Bette and Dot to become stars, and is already planting seeds of doubt in naive Bette’s tilted head. And also leaves a knife under her pillow. Huh. Wonder how that’s gonna pan out.

With all the overtness going on under the freak show tents, the subtlety with which Twisty is handled proves again that he is the most interesting character in the season so far. The two dudes he killed at the beginning of the episode seemed to serve like an addict getting his fix of a drug. He was not gleeful with murderous rage to have chopped a couple of heads off, but more relieved and satisfied to have gotten it out of the way. And when he presented his young abductee with the wind-up robot, Twisty’s eyes yearned for acceptance. He wanted to make the child happy, he wanted to see him appreciate the toy he was given. And yet, no acceptance or appreciation. So what happens next? HERE’S A DECAPITATED HEAD, YOU LITTLE JERK. BE GRATEFUL NEXT TIME.

Lovely, bored Dandy is a close second in the most interesting character rank. His sheltered life and anything-you-want upbringing has made him numb to pretty much everything, except for the things in life that are weird or gross or wrong. He really does beg the question, is sociopathy a learned or inherited trait? I’ve literally never thought of that before, and that thought alone is probably the coolest thing this show has offered me so far.

Except for what’s under Twisty’s mask. OH MAN WAS THAT GOOD. No wonder the mask. No wonder he doesn’t speak. “Your silence is utterly provocative.” That’s no joke. (Also the best line of the episode.)

I love that Dandy’s and Twisty’s paths have crossed (albeit in a bit of a hackneyed way) and that Dandy has found a partner in murder and torture, because that seems to be the only thing that will breathe life into the dullness of his world. At least while he’s with Twisty he won’t have to drink cognac from a baby bottle.

This episode also built a platform for the themes of this season. Feminism (obvs, since that is AHS’s modus operandi), race, social injustice, LGBTQI issues. We’re set in the American South,  pre-Civil Rights Movement. Jimmy Darling monologues that they are just like everyone else, they are people too, no different from anyone. There is a group of “unconventional” people demanding service at a diner where they know they’ll be treated poorly and the proprietor asserts, “I have the right to refuse service.” The fact that they’re all white hasn’t escaped me.

As well as AHS can promote feminism, it has a hard time dealing with race. The only two black characters on the show so far are Desiree and Nora (oh, hey, Patti LaBelle! … it’s kinda weird that you’re here… right?). The one is married to a white man, which in some states is probably still illegal, and the other is playing a house maid.

I mean, I get it, a group of different-looking people demand that they be recognized as something other than sub-human by the normal, pretty, white world around them. Just, again, something resembling subtlety (maybe even tact?) could be used here.

Something that was slightly more tactful was the episode’s approach to LGBTQI themes. We have both a transgender woman and a “full-blown hermaphrodite” under the tents now. Dandy, before he resorted to taking up with the crazy clown, proclaimed that he belonged in the freak show, though he has no outwardly apparent abnormalities (besides knowing the full Cole Porter canon). And Dandy’s mommy dearest alluded to the multitude of lovely ladies she’s tried to set him up with, the mention of which he replied with a groan. The flashback to Desiree’s extramarital transgression included a relieved man stating he can finally have sex with a real woman, he can finally have a wife and kids. (I mean, turns out he won’t, thanks to Dell and his Strong Man arms. But that’s besides the point.) The point being that the show is recognizing non-heterosexual people in a show that’s not just for non-heterosexual people. While we saw some of these issues in Asylum, it’s really refreshing to broaden the spectrum this way.

Massacres and Matinees was exciting to watch and had some serious OMFGWHATISTHAT moments, so I’m feeling kinda great about this season right now. I’m excited for the annual Halloween episodes, which does seem to be introducing a supernatural element to the season. And if some other-worldly characters can give Twisty a run for his money, this show will really start to impress me.


– Unfortunately last night was the first Freak Show death this season. The first of many, I’m sure. Poor little Meep. All he wanted to do was keep biting the heads off live baby chicks! Jimmy Darling needs to get better at planting evidence.

– I really want Kathy Bates to have more to do. Right now she’s only functioning as a plot mover. I hope we see more of Ethel, because if not that is a total waste of her talent.

– Speaking of Ethel, that flashback was entirely unnecessary. Jimmy mentions early in the episode he never knew his father, then Ethel sees Dell’s trailer and states that he is “somebody she used to know.” Do we really need to have it spelled out for us? WHO DIDN’T PUT THAT TOGETHER?!

– Speaking of her line regarding Dell, did anyone start singing Gotye in their heads?

– Devil’s Advocate: A point had been brought up to be by MF that the way this episode dealt with race could actually be more interesting than I originally put it. He said maybe it’s more of a “fun house mirror” look at the topic of race, since Desiree is married to a white man in the 1950s and no one bats an eye. Patti LaBelle plays a maid when in reality she’s a superstar. I can get down with that theory.

‘Monsters Among Us’: Recap of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

We got off to an alright start with this premiere. It lacked the excitement of premieres past, but I’m thinking that this season may crescendo rather than fizzle out.


Not to sound like a total prude, but I think there’s a reason they say you should wait until the third date before introducing some sexytime to a relationship. It has nothing to do with being chaste or austere or anything Charlotte York would say. But waiting builds intrigue and anticipation for future bedroom fun, doesn’t it? There’s excitement in just flirting, in letting the butterflies flutter before releasing them into the wild… so to speak.

The fourth season of American Horror Story premiered last week and we were introduced to the Freak Show. Aaaand I think we just slept with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk on the first date, guys. It had nothing to do with us, don’t worry! They put out pretty easily. (And what? We’re supposed to just not give in? Who has that kind of willpower.)

While I enjoyed the always fabulous production design, the cinematography (split screens! and DUTCH ANGLES! I’VE MISSED YOU!) and being introduced to our new cast of characters, I feel like I know too much too soon. Elsa Mars disintegrated into a wretch with serious delusions of grandeur in just a short hour and a half. Jessica Lange is such a confident, controlling, fucking bad ass bitch and I want to see her like that! At least Sister Jude and Fiona sustained that persona until the last third of the respective seasons before the inevitable disintegration. In just the first hour we already know Elsa Mars is a talentless wannabe with a penchant for blue eyeshadow. (even in the fifties… just… no.) I kinda wish we had time to build to that.

We also already know that Bette and Dot killed their mom. We already established Jimmy Darling prostitutes himself and his, erm, useful deformity. (DID I CALL IT OR WHAT?!) He hates being labeled a freak and hates what he does for a living, though he does seem to enjoy getting those ladies off. He and the other freaks are sick of being called freaks and then they killed a guy and stabbed him a lot and I’m pretty sure they’re going to kill again.

I mean, really. Can we go on two more dates before everything is let loose? The only thing we’re unsure of is Twisty the Clown, who is played by Norm SonofaGunderson, a fact that I think makes him even more terrifying. All we know is that he likes to stab people and imprison children in the creepiest trailer ever. His motives are a mystery at this point, since that giant toothed grin mask prevents him from speaking, though I’m willing to bet the poor fool simply wants an audience. The young girl behind a cage tried to appeal to his better nature after he fucked up a balloon animal, which unfortunately for her served only to piss him off more. (Even a nutso doesn’t like to be condescended to.) And when Twisty walked up on the other freaks stabbing the already dead cop, it seemed like he found a home full of twisted kindred spirits. Invited or not, I think Twisty is going to shack up in one of those tents for a while.

We got off to an alright start with this premiere. It lacked the excitement of premieres past, but I’m thinking that this season may crescendo rather than fizzle out. Judging by the teaser clips after the episode, Bette and Dot may actually be the headliner the freak show needs to get an audience again. If that’s the case, I’m quite excited to see the cast fill out with the tri-tittied lady and the strong man and others. So Ryan and Brad may be an easy lay, we may already know most of what they have to offer, but I’m holding out hope that they’ll surprise us after a few more dates.

Random notes:
– Ethel Darling. Accent. WHAT. Edna Turnblad, anyone?
– Speaking of Ethel, the moment with her and Elsa seemed to ooze tension, right? I think there’s more to that relationship where Ethel is concerned.
– One of my favorite moments in the episode was the long shot of Bette and Dot walking. The awkward, bumbling walk is a helpful physicalization of an oddly shaped body.
– I’m not sure I appreciate so much morality so soon. What was with the weird orgy opium rape with Meryl Streep’s daughter?
– The song. Ugh. I can’t. I’m not sure my belief can be suspended that much. I need time to figure out how and if that is going to work, since it doesn’t seem like this is the last time travel song we’ll hear.
– Also, did they get the idea for the show from that song? “Is there life on mars?” Elsa Mars? “Freak show?” A little on the nose.

The Good, the Bad, and the Creepy: An ‘American Horror Story’ Precap

If Mad Men is the filet mignon of television, American Horror Story is a big, juicy double bacon cheese burger.


Fall is here, everyone! My favorite time of year! The brisk air and the crunchy leaves and the pumpkin everything. There is just nothing like it. Oh, and all the new fall television shows! Y’know, there’s that one comedy where the person says the funny thing. And that one that’s about murder and intrigue followed by the other one about … murder and intrigue.

ALRIGHT FINE. I’ll say it: I just don’t care for network TV. I know these shows are happening and they’re probably alright but there’s something in me that just always assumes these shows kinda suck. Give me your HBO! Your AMC and your FX! We can even throw IFC in there! I want a network where characters can say the word shit and we can see some sideboob or a buttcrack here or there! THAT’S where we can get quality television! I may be totally wrong, but that’s just what I feel. And I might be a TV snob for it. #sorrynotsorry

And since all of the other shows I watch religiously (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Downton Abbey, Orange is the New Black) won’t be on until after 2014 is over, I have but one show to keep me going. (Other than The Newsroom, that is. And I guess since I watched the first two seasons, I’ll watch the last one? I mean, it’s on, right?) That show is television’s weird, creepy cousin, y’all: American Horror Story.

Ryan Murphy has tapped into that part of me that loves to indulge in life’s dark underbelly. The grotesque and macabre part that when someone asks you, “You wanna smell something weird?” goes, “… Yeah. Yeah I do.” And while this dark side loves to indulge in AHS’s disturbing embrace, the TV snob in me is screaming out for attention, “PLEASE! BUT, SOMEONE! LISTEN TO ME! … WHAT ARE THEY EVEN DOING?!”

Let’s give the snob a chance, alright?

American Horror Story as a production has a serious case of ADD. If you were to ask fans, chances are the first AHS season, Murder House, would not be an overwhelming favorite. Even though from start to finish it is the most cohesive AHS season, compared to the latter seasons it’s relatively tame in its content. But while we were juggling fifteen different storylines (something AHS is wont to do), at least they all had roots in one place. The Murder House itself was the element that contained all the storylines, so you could only go so far with the bat-shittiness. One could say the same for Asylum and Coven, but notice as the series continues how far outside of the common element the numerous storylines go.

Let’s examine Asylum first. So here we are, all contained in Briarcliff with all our lovely crazies. And what happens? Aliens. Angels. Devils. Nazis. Mutants in the woods. Anne Frank. FREAKING ANNE FRANK YOU GUYS. We already have so much going on with our nymphos and pinheads and superiority complexes, Ryan and Brad. Why the desire to cram so much into one season? It ends up feeling bloated and confusing.

And Coven, dear Coven. So much promise, so much potential. Here again, we have one setting trying to contain a gaggle of witches and all their power. But with great power comes a lot of sloppy world-building. How many times is one person supposed to be able to die? And how many times is one person supposed to be able to come back to life even?! The season begins with its focus on Zoe (played by the ehh actress Taissa Farmiga, who I guess just likes to do AHS every other year?) and by the end of the season, just kidding! It was Cordelia all along! Remember when it was Madison and then Misty and maybe Nan, but NOPE! It was Cordelia! Oh and HEY! You know what would be fun? Someone call Stevie Nicks! That’ll be a gas!

I like a plot twist. In fact, it’s pretty much my favorite cinematic experience when a show or movie can genuinely surprise me. But this had nothing to do with plot twists. This was Coven not knowing how to properly develop its story and characters. For as much as Asylum is bloated, Coven is moving at a hundred miles per hour in twenty different directions. We’re never sure how to keep track, and when it comes down to it, the season was remarkably unfulfilling. (With the exception of “knotty pine.” If Ms. Lange weren’t so fabulous, that whole finale would have been shit.)

Overall I think that AHS needs to cut about five episodes from each season. Each year it feels like they’re so unsure of where their characters should go that they aaalmost finish the season then drag the last few episodes as far out as they can stretch the show without snapping it. Really though, did Alma NEED to come back? Only to end up in Briarcliff herself, only to die? Did we really need Dylan McDermott to show up in a pseudo-cameo and harass old, successful Lana? Did we really need to waste three and half minutes on STEVIE NICKS SINGING?!

And sorry guys, the answer is no. They’re already touting AHS as a miniseries, so why not give it eight episodes instead of thirteen? Ryan can earn the other five episodes when they can prove to us that they don’t have to take a mile-wide jughandle around the story at hand to make the series watchable. Someone crush up an Adderall and put it in their cocktails.

And here we are with Freak Show. I’ve heard it’s a combination of Asylum and Coven in its dark campiness, which is quite a nice balance. But what else have I heard? Pepper is back. Jessica Lange’s character, Elsa Mars, sings a Lana Del Rey song.

My inner snob is SCREAMING.

How, Jesus, HOW can Pepper be back?! Sure, it’s fun because Pepper was super cool, but it just doesn’t work. At its core, AHS is fun because the same actors play different characters each season. I’m sorry, but you cannot bring a character from a different AHS world to mingle with the same actors in a new world. How can I look at Pepper hanging out with Elsa Mars without thinking that Elsa Mars is going to morph into Sister Jude and start beating Pepper with a stick? And Freak Show takes place in the 50s, so HOW IS SHE SINGING A SONG FROM A DIFFERENT CENTURY?!

American Horror Story is a great many things, but hate to break it to you, Ryan, it is simply not postmodern. We can move through different dimensions and bitches can stay alive for centuries and heads can talk because that’s all fantasy. Postmodernism, when it succeeds, is a very delicate balance of reality and metafiction. The word “delicate” is not something that our showrunners seem to consider when creating AHS characters and stories. (Except for maybe, “How can we play up Evan Peters’ delicate features?”) I applaud the show for being fearless in pretty much everything it does, but sometimes that fearlessness turns into recklessness, then recklessness turns to sloppiness. And then we have aliens impregnating a chick who had her uterus removed.

That said, I am willing to give Freak Show the benefit of the doubt because of all of the AHS seasons, this one seems to be the least supernatural. Instead of ghosts and aliens and witches, this season seems to be focusing on real people with real physical abnormalities. So this might be the one that can kindasortaalmostmaybe get away with some postmodern tendencies. Fingers crossed, anyway.

I think what my inner snob is most upset about is that American Horror Story has the potential to be really great, and yet it consistently falls short. There’s a reason the show gets nominated for Emmy’s and only its cast wins. It succeeds at writing some very compelling dialogue for very some fabulous of-a-certain-age actresses, but the larger production seems to focus more on visuals (shots, sets, costumes) than the actual story. And without a solid story, each respective season becomes disjointed and messy. If only that Adderall went to Ryan’s head already. If only he would focus on finding and maintaining that delicate balance of weird but cohesive. I would love to see what this show would be like should it be elevated to prestige status.

Okay, the snob is done now. The fan of AHS? THE FAN IS SO SUPER PUMPED ABOUT THIS SHOW! The inherent creepiness of a carnival freak show can take it to so many places! I can’t wait to see Jessica and Sarah and Kathy and Angela and Frances be the bad ass bitches they always are! I’m mourning no Lily Rabe but HAVE YOU SEEN Evan Peters’ lobster hands?! Could they give him a more arousing abnormality?! (I mean… yeah, but, just ssh.) And Twisty! OH Twisty the terrifying clown! Bring on the coulrophobia!

So here’s to seeing if the snob in me and the fan in me can love the same series! I at least trust Ryan to deliver an hour of deliciously disturbing entertainment every week, even if my snob disapproves.

If Mad Men is the filet mignon of television, American Horror Story is a big, juicy double bacon cheese burger. And rather than watch the PB and J that is network television, I’m sitting here watching the string cheese: Wheel of Fortune. Sure, it’s not that satisfying, but it’s holding me over until my big meal on Wednesday night. As I’m writing this, a puzzle in the category of “phrase” just came on Wheel. And I shit you not, the answer to the puzzle was “I promise you won’t be disappointed.” I’m taking that as a sign.

Because this needs to be dealt with: Michael Cera’s sudden solo album

Michael Cera made a pretty decent bedroom pop album. I don’t think he cares if I like it, but I do.

Well there’s no point in burying the lede: Michael Cera has released a surprise album called true that on BandCamp for some reason. No shit. Here, listen to it. Told ya.

Obviously, there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out here, so let’s get right to it.

1. Why tho?

Excellent question, and one that was much on my mind when I saw this item on my Facebook trending bar. First–and I’d forgotten all about this–but this is not Cera’s first foray into music. And no, I’m not counting that adorable song at the end of Juno, nor am I alluding to his stunning a capella rendition of a Guess Who classic in Superbad. Way back in 2010, Cera went the full Dogstar and became the touring bassist for indie supergroup Mister Heavenly. Again, I shit you not, see for yourself. Mister Heavenly contained members of The Unicorns, Man Man and Modest Mouse, and toured (with Cera) in late 2010 as a supporting act for Passion Pit. (Funniest part of Mister Heavenly’s Wikipedia page: The quotes around the word “supergroup.”)

I guess this could be seen as a natural progression from Cera’s role in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but I think what’s coolest about the Mister Heavenly gig is that it’s a decidedly low-key career move. Hell, it’s not even a career move. It’s a fun thing to do that Michael Cera did without making a big deal out of it. Which is probably why I quickly forgot about it and replaced my indie-rocking image of Cera with his coke-swilling, turbo-douche persona from This is the End.

2. Okay but like, WHY THO?

Cera, it seems, is a man of many passions. For instance, did you know he has a YouTube comedy channel with Reggie Watts, Tim & Eric, and Sarah Silverman? Yeah. Wikipedia is a wonderful thing. Cera writes, directs and stars in many of the shorts featured here.

What we’ve learned about Michael Cera from this whole true that business is that he’s just a guy who does whatever TF he wants. Cera follows his muse wherever she goes. True that.

3. What does it sound like?

The tags that Cera has applied to the album’s BandCamp page include “alternative,” “dirty,” “home recording” and, perhaps ironically, “modest.” I’ll say this: it’s certainly no vanity project, at least not in the sense typically applied to celebrities. These songs legitimately sound like they were recorded on an old four-track in someone’s basement. And Cera seems unconcerned with highlighting any singular aspect of his talent. These aren’t full-band tracks, nor do I even feel accurate calling them “songs.” Many are instrumental, and only about half are over two minutes long. The tracks are mostly aimless jams over a central riff. Aimless is maybe the wrong word, but they’re relaxed, lethargic even. When it’s not gently-strummed guitar it’s gently-tickled piano and keyboard. It’s mellow to the mellow-th power. When he does sing, Cera’s double-tracked vocals sound like a happy marriage between Ray Davies and the late Elliott Smith. I almost wonder if he’s trying to put on an affect, yet nothing seems forced here. All is very, very chill.

4. So is it any good?

It is, actually! There’s nothing I’d call groundbreaking on the first or second listen, but true that offers the same kind of pleasure that a Kurt Vile album does, which is to say that it doesn’t demand approval; its worth is based on its breeziness and its refusal to give a single care. It’s an album of excellent reading music, basically, and I’m sure that’s just fine with Cera. There’s little ambition here, but even less pretense. That’s a disarming quality, especially coming from a movie star moonlighting as a musician. There’s no latent need to be liked here. It’s kind of awesome that way.

So anyway, yeah. Michael Cera made a pretty decent bedroom pop album. I don’t think he cares if I like it, but I do.

Last of the Golden Age Icons: Remembering Lauren Bacall

“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Annex - Bacall, Lauren_15“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Let’s cut to the chase: this line is the only thing most people under 80 will remember about Lauren Bacall’s filmography. But somehow that isn’t bothersome. Even if she hadn’t married Humphrey Bogart–her first leading man in her first Hollywood movie–and gone on to become to Hepburn to his Tracy (in more ways, sadly, than one), Lauren Bacall–who passed away yesterday at the age of 89–would have ruled the highlight reels of Old Hollywood for all time with that one line. The image of a green, low-voiced nineteen year-old putting the verbal moves on the man who’d by then forged a screen identity of sarcastic stoicism isn’t one that’s easily forgotten. The innuendo doesn’t even scratch the surface of subtlety, and that’s what’s great about it. Bacall was a straight shooter.

What little I know about Lauren Bacall–outside of her marriage to Bogie and her roles alongside him–amounts to this: She was nineteen when she fell in love with the married 44-year-old, which makes the relationship seem a lot less innocent than it looks through the kinetoscope of history. She was the youngest person to join the cast of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and as such the scope of her life is almost incomprehensible. It’s been over half a century since Bogie’s death in 1957. Bacall was still a young woman then, even if history makes it hard to grasp that fact. She lived the bulk of her life without the man with whom she was most identified. Indeed, given how young she was when her career took off, Bacall outlived most of her Golden Age colleagues by nearly two decades. Her association with the forties made her old before her time; whatever she did, she would always be trapped in those black-and-white noir films.

With Bacall’s death, one of our last living connections with that Golden Age is severed. It belongs almost entirely to history now, which sounds a lot less monumental than it feels. The 20th century is the first in human history that we have a living, moving document of. It’s the first century in which we captured life as it’s actually lived: fluid, graceful, in motion. The movies of Bacall’s day show the increasing quality of film itself; less graininess, less choppy editing, more focus and clarity. Bacall was of the first generation of humans that can never truly die because they look so crisp, so alive on film.

Humphrey Bogart died thirty years before I was born, but he didn’t seem dead when I started watching his movies in high school, and he doesn’t seem dead now. He’ll be whistling for the rest of time. And Lauren Bacall will be right there, showing him how.

Remembering Robin Williams

For reasons that will never be known to living humans, Robin Williams has died of an apparent suicide. He was 63.

It happens that I’ve been reading Live From New York–Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s massive yet compulsively readable oral history of Saturday Night Live–and there are some snippets of dialogue from Williams. Yesterday morning, I read a bit of Williams recalling the death of another legendary clown, John Belushi. Belushi also killed himself, albeit by accident. But does anyone who self-medicates the way Belushi did (and the way Williams did around the same time, for that matter) really want to live anyway? The difficulty of maintaining your identity as a private person while living as a clown in public can be crushing, I suppose. The irony is that the comedy that’s designed to distract us from that ugly side of life is so often manufactured by people who live inside that ugliness much more than we’d like to know about. You self-medicate so that the pain is pushed to the periphery, leaving room for jokes at the cost of equilibrium. Maybe Williams thought it was better to get the hell out than to lie to himself with substances. That’s not exactly a justifiable thought, but misery forces us into a weird mindspace sometimes.

I can’t pretend that I’m a huge fan of Williams, but that’s not to say I disliked his work. Like most people I enjoyed his classic performances: the free-associative genius of his Genie in Aladdin; his dramatic turns in Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come; his exasperated nightclub owner in The Birdcage, which I think is quietly brilliant. But when I heard of his death, I thought of something that rock critic Steven Hyden wrote about Tom Petty: “Tom Petty’s music doesn’t necessarily demand a value judgment. It’s like having an opinion on tap water or concrete….Tom Petty has existed since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist until time is extinguished.” That’s Robin Williams too, I think. Williams was less a person than a fact, or at least it seemed that way. He didn’t have many hits after the ’90s, but it didn’t matter because you knew that Robin Williams was around, ready to do his thing whenever it was needed. That’s not to say that he wasn’t appreciated, only that he was so good that he became reliable.

It’s sad that he didn’t value himself the way the rest of the world did. It sucks for him and it sucks for the world.

The best thing I ever saw Robin Williams do was his episode of Inside The Actors Studio. The normally tepid program was transformed by Williams into part performance, part improv clinic, part fireside chat. He seemed incapable of stopping his body and his wits.

He was a human embodiment of nonstop talent. I hope he knows that, wherever he is.

Heroes in a Crap-Shell: Yet Another ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Movie

Considering the options, I was confident in my decision to spend my weekend movie money on crime-fighting turtles. As un-promising as the reviews were, I was sure that, if nothing else, nostalgia and low expectations would carry me through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


Before I get to talking about the latest attempt at a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, here’s a quick rundown of the new movies I didn’t see last weekend:

  • Step Up All In – This is the fifth(!) installment in a series of movies I am proud to have never seen. The director of this one is Trish Sie, whose talents as a choreographer resulted in what is probably the greatest music video ever made, and turned the merely decent power pop group OK Go into a household name. Unfortunately, that video is also her only directorial credit worth mentioning, and Sie’s offering to the series seems like same song, fifth verse. At least the trailers for the previous installment (Step Up Revolution) offered some sort of dancing-as-civil-disobedience posturing. All In looks like all sound and no fury. And doesn’t that title seem like it’s asking for a colon? Who was responsible for educating the producers of these movies with regard to punctuation?
  • Into The Storm – Just when you thought it was safe to go anywhere or do anything, the ash gray (with a hint of slate gray) TV spots for this movie are here to tell us that, no, there are definitely tornadoes fucking everywhere. Is it even possible to have human characters in a movie like this, or can we just be real here and admit that Into The Storm is a hastily thrown-together excuse to blow the roofs off a bunch of CGI houses and send them flying at unsuspecting high school principals? If this is Hollywood’s attempt at cashing in on the Sharknado phenomenon, they’re a few man-eating fish too short. (Also, SpellCheck is telling me that Sharknado is not a word, which is bullshit.)
  • The Hundred Foot Journey – Is there any way the full version of this movie can give us any more story than the trailer does? My guess is that Indian cooking warms the cold, cold heart of French Helen Mirren and the mutual respect thus achieved provides the ending. What do you think? Does a bear shit in the woods? This movie was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, which I guess proves that Nietzsche was right.

Considering the options, I was confident in my decision to spend my weekend movie money on crime-fighting turtles. As un-promising as the reviews were (and boy, did they un-promise) I was sure that, if nothing else, nostalgia and low expectations would carry me through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And they did…sort of. The problem (one of many) with rebooting old franchises in 2014 is that the advances in special effects often distract the filmmakers, causing them to forget the appeal of the source material. What I loved about the Ninja Turtles when I was a kid was the behavior of the Turtles and their conflicting personalities. The most memorable scenes from the first movie (also named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from way back in 1990) are not fight sequences, but scenes of bickering, goofing off, and slicing pizza with kitanas. The Turtles were jackasses, sure, but that only means that they behaved the way most movie teenagers behaved circa 1990. Besides, who doesn’t love pizza?

The new TMNT, however, reduces each turtle to his most obvious characteristic. Michaelangelo is still the token goofball, but the filmmakers seem to think that, in 2014, “goofball” translates to “creepy douchebag.” Donatello has his gadgets and little else. Raphael bitches and threatens to “go out on his own,” but we have no idea why his relationship with the other Turtles–especially Leonardo–is so strained. Leonardo is supposed to be the leader, but younger audiences, unfamiliar with the Ninja Turtles of old, would probably not glean as much from this movie, which barely gives ten lines of dialogue to poor Leo. That’s especially strange since the voice of Leonardo is provided by Johnny Knoxville. Either Knoxville has fallen on hard times or the studio overpaid for what is essentially a character role.

Of course, none of these characters are characters, really. They’re walking tropes, behaving according to the needs of the plot. We have the ambitious young reporter (April O’Neil, played inexplicably by Megan Fox), desperate to get the scoop that will earn the respect of her peers. There’s the newsroom chief (Whoopi Goldberg for some reason) who insists April should stick to what she’s best at, i.e. puff pieces, and doesn’t believe her crazy stories about mutant turtles beating up bad guys. There’s the guy who works for the city and has some sanctimonious speech about all the good he’s going to do for the people of New York, so you know he’s going to wind up being the bad guy. In this movie he’s played by William Fitchner, who’s carved out a fine career for himself playing authority figures and magnificent creeps. Fitchner has a natural bad guy face; it’s not that he’s bad-looking, but you can tell just by looking at him that he’s probably going to be the bad guy in whatever movie you’re watching. He’s like Jeremy Irons. Oh, and then there’s the even badder bad guy who the slightly less bad guy is working for, because of course it’s all part of some shadow conspiracy to “reclaim veek-tory” over the city of New York, even though no one knows why veek-tory is so important, or in what way the dispersal of a toxic chemical over the entire city (yep, it’s one of those plots) could possibly benefit Fitchner and his boss, the Shredder.

Remember Shredder? The badass, metal-clad villain from your childhood? He’s barely there in this movie. Like, literally. He spends the first eighty or so minutes of the movie out of his costume, a bald man photographed entirely in shadow, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. He shows up for a couple fights (including the requisite Fight To The Finish that ends the movie) but for the most part he’s sitting around imparting instructions to the Foot Clan, his army of loyal, mostly silent henchmen.

And then there are the Turtles themselves, who for some reason don’t show up until about twenty minutes into the movie. Director Jonathan Liebesman and his trio of screenwriters have invested way too much in everyone’s backstory to keep the plot moving forward. The exposition alone is exhausting as we get not only the origin story of the Turtles and their ninja master, Splinter (a mutated rat who somehow finds an arsenal of weapons just laying around in the New York sewer system), but those of Fox’s April and Fitchner’s Eric Sacks. This is the error so masterfully avoided by last week’s blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy. That movie’s director, James Gunn, realized that it’s less interesting to learn about how a talking raccoon and a humanoid tree came into being than it is to watch them in action. Liebesman, on the other hand, gives Splinter an expository monologue that likely contains more words than are spoken by the four Turtles combined during the entire movie. For a supposed action movie, Liebesman does a lot more telling than showing here.

So I guess it’s not surprising that the action sequences are what bring the movie to something resembling life. Obviously there’s lots of movement and noise and near-misses, but what’s really attractive about these sequences is that it’s where the Turtles are finally able to have fun. Because the movie is (unfortunately) told from April’s point of view, the already muted personalities of the Turtles are, for most of the movie, limited to Donatello’s nerdspeak and a few Michaelangelo doucheisms. The action scenes—particularly one adrenaline-fueled (literally) freefall down a snowy mountain cliff—find the Turtles at their zaniest, fighting the fight as the plot requires, but also reveling in the rush.

But that’s the most a movie like this can offer, because although the Turtles are armed with blades and bludgeoning tools, this movie is rated PG-13, which means that those weapons are mostly for show. There’s no blood, and the ninja abilities of our heroes are mostly used for punching and kicking bad guys into drywall. I guess all this is beside the point for a movie that has the opportunity to engage in all kinds of Turtle action but instead focuses on Megan Fox doing her best “what’s going on here?” face and running around in the tightest of all possible jeans. The best character here belongs to Will Arnett as the obligatory Guy Who Drives The News Van. He’s the funniest character—human or reptile—onscreen, but he’s also the most useless from the point of view of the plot. I guess maybe April doesn’t have a car? I don’t know. I don’t really care about her in the first place, and that’s the source of most of this movie’s problems.