Todd Ray is concerned when he catches his twenty year old daughter, Asia, jamming a wire clothes hanger down her throat in the bathroom…but he’s not upset enough to stop her. Todd Ray runs the Venice Beach Freakshow, so Asia with a hanger in her mouth means that Todd’s little girl is growing up. Todd knows that Asia doesn’t have an extreme case of bulimia…she’s learning to swallow swords.
Let me say right here that I consider Asia to be a lucky, lucky girl. My parents would have shit and fallen back into it if they’d caught me with a hanger in my mouth. My mother refused to entertain any of my childhood circus aspirations. She wouldn’t buy the Junior Stilts in the JC Penney catalog for my birthday, so I was forced to sneak next door and borrow the clumsy stilts that my neighbor’s grandfather had made out of 2x4s. I could walk on them, but they were heavy and I couldn’t go far. Mom wouldn’t buy me a unicycle, either, so I was forced to practice by popping wheelies on my bike and taking my hands off the handlebars in mid-pop. The result of that activity was I flipped over backwards. My knees were hamburger, and I should have seen a doctor, but I hid my knees for fear that my mother would take my bike. Or worse, she could have started watching me more closely. The neighbors with the stilts offered up their dog. “Dog mouths are so clean that them licking you is just like seeing the doctor.” So, Dr. Jo-Jo it was. If I’d had any idea that one could learn to swallow swords by swallowing wire hangers, there wouldn’t have been a dry hanger in the house. I envy Asia, although growing up in a household where sword swallowing makes you one of the family would have probably made me want to be an accountant.
Anybody who knows me knows that the television show I’m most likely to watch is AMC’s Freakshow. The first episode was a little wonky, but I enjoyed it and I was back for more freakishness this Thursday night.
In the second episode, Asia wants to learn sword swallowing for her Dad’s special event, and her instructor is Morgue. Morgue is a shock artist, but we haven’t seen most of his act, yet. Morgue must have an enormous teen girl fanbase. He’s exotic and vampiric, yet he also manages to look sensitive and shy. When Murrugan and Brianna, two of the show’s other working acts, get together to dish on Morgue’s inexperience as a sword swallower, it’s both depressing to learn that co-workers will talk shit about you no matter WHERE you work and disconcerting that a rookie is teaching Asia. I imagine that part was just manufactured for the show. I hope.
Todd Ray’s sword swallowing event is a success, and Asia struts her stuff as the youngest female sword swallower in the world (I assume it means she’s currently the youngest female sword swallower, because I can’t imagine that circus kids throughout history haven’t learned it). Murrugan risks stomach impalement with his own special rocket-launcher sword, and Brianna risks scissoring her insides to pieces by swallowing three swords at once. Morgue manages to impress them both by swallowing a large metal ball bearing and then a sword that hits the bearing in his stomach with a “tink.” I’m most impressed when Morgue barfs the bearing back up. Then, Sword Swallowers Association president Dan Meyer displays real showmanship with an act of his own.
Just like everybody who knows me knows I love a good sideshow, everybody who knows me also knows that I am critical.
There are problems with the show. It’s is only thirty minutes long, and I think the limited time hurts it. Sideshows are a dizzying array of excess. We don’t get that feeling when we see one little story in half an hour. The show pokes along and delivers information through speeches, rather than action.
A bigger problem is that the show isn’t following the sales format of the sideshow itself. Sideshows, including the Venice Beach Freakshow, send performers outside to lure in customers. Sideshows offer some of their most dazzling acts for free so spectators will pay to see more. Freakshow isn’t enticing their television audience. The show hasn’t even made clear to us everything that most of the performers do. The gradual reveal is more like a strip tease than a sideshow, and we often hear that an act is amazing so many times before we see it that we aren’t amazed when we do see it.
Lastly, the show promised us a Freakshow, and we kind of aren’t getting it. While it’s true that we’ve come to refer to people who are obsessive and different as “freaks,” the first episode of the show reminded us that the old meaning of the word “freak” was someone physically different from the rest of us. Todd Ray means to reclaim that word in a positive way for his little person and his giant and any guest stars who happen to wander in (a bearded lady already did). These performers, who haven’t spent years suppressing their gag reflexes and singing their hair, are supposed to be what sets the Venice Beach Freakshow apart. Except we aren’t seeing much of them. I’m not saying that the show should strip naked at the start of the first date, but anybody who tells you a padded bra isn’t a disappointment is lying, just a little.
In the show’s intro, we catch a glimpse of Grady Stiles, III. Grady’s father was the famous Lobster Boy. Grady Stiles Jr.’s wife paid a carnival geek to shoot her husband dead. Mrs. Stiles said that Grady Stiles was a violent drunk who abused the family with his claw-shaped hands. It’s dark sideshow history, and I doubt the show will go into detail about it, but I want to see Grady Stiles, III. I want to see more of all the human wonders that the show has promised us, and I honestly think we need to them to stay interested in these early days. Grady is supposed to appear in the third episode of the show, joining Morgue on a trip to pick up a two-headed baby, so my hopes are high for episode three!