The pierced and tattooed Marcus “The Creature” is a part of… (Michael Loccisano, Getty…)
The trouble with freak shows is never the people who actually comprise them. The "giants" and midgets, the consumers of sword and flame, the overly hirsute, these are people called upon by nature or spirit to showcase the physical limits of human experience, and audiences typically view them with admiration or pity.
No, the truly disturbing characters of freak shows, and freak show lore, are inevitably the non-freaks, the barkers and the owners, the performers from the more common end of "normal."
In AMC's new reality show "Freakshow," which premieres Thursday, it's Todd Ray, former music executive and proprietor of what is described on the network's website as "the quirky family business," the Venice Beach Freakshow. When we meet Ray, an affable-seeming man, he explains that after years in the music industry, he decided to follow his true passion, which is collecting and showcasing the bizarre and unique, be they skulls or posters or human beings.
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For $5, visitors to his boardwalk establishment can see a two-headed snake, a two-headed dragon, many preserved animal oddities and an assortment of "performers," including the sword-swallowing Morgue, grinder girl Brianna Belladonna, Larry "Wolf Boy" Gomez and the Creature, arguably the most pierced man in America.
Ray himself lives in a lovely, leafy neighborhood with his wife and two children, one of whom is, apparently, capable of surviving electrocution during her part of the show. The contrast between his cookie-cutterish habitat and his "real life" with the freaks is played up for all it's worth.
As the pilot opens, Ray is meeting with George Bell, who at 7 feet, 8 inches is among the tallest men in America. Ray has brought Bell out from Virginia, where he works in law enforcement, in the hopes of persuading him to join the freak show.
Obviously uncomfortable with words like "freak" and "giant," Bell nonetheless allows Ray, his family and friends to exclaim over his size, to examine his large hands, and to make tiresome double-entendres about the size of his feet. In the well-appointed shelter of his lovely home, surrounded by his non-freak family, Ray pitches Bell about the wonders of being part of his show, which attempts to reclaim the word "freak" and make it something wonderful, something indicative of the super-human.
Yet for all the politically correct phraseology about the tyranny of "normal," Ray's determination to "collect" Bell is chilling. Especially since Ray is also cruising the Internet in an attempt to procure a "real bearded lady" in time for the birthday party he plans to hold for his two-headed bearded dragon.
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And this is the problem with Ray, and the show: There is no discernible division between the reptile and the lady. They are both presented for your entertainment and amazement, both passed off as equal celebrations of diversity. In fact, the two heads of the dragon are addressed by name more often than the young woman who arrives from Las Vegas.
When, at a highly staged dinner scene, she explains her decision to flaunt rather than hide her facial hair, a glimpse of real drama emerges. Bell earnestly explains that he too has lived his life on his own terms, rejecting anyone who would judge him.
Acting as if this were his message instead of its direct opposite, Ray leverages the moment to persuade Bell to join the show, at least for the dragon's birthday party. And so a man who says he simply considers himself "very tall" finds himself at the short end of a big sell, surrounded not only by the Venice Beach crowds but by the cameras of a reality show, suddenly identifying himself with another man's definition of the word "freak."
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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