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Who's odder, the shows or the fans?

'Immortalized' and 'Freakshow' direct viewers to the strange

By Neil Genzlinger
New York Times

FREAKSHOW

AMC, Thursday, 9:30 p.m.

IMMORTALIZED

AMC, Thursday, 10 p.m.

The bombast of professional wrestling and the dolefulness of roadkill may have never struck you as a logical pairing, but perhaps they will once you’ve seen “Immortalized,” an aggressively strange new show on AMC that may be landing at just the right time. Football season is over, baseball season hasn’t started, basketball and hockey aren’t for everybody, so why not competitive taxidermy?

“Immortalized” pits an outside challenger against one of four expert taxidermists – “the Immortalizers,” as they’re called in the show’s hyperactive parlance – to see who can interpret a given theme most effectively. The program is apparently part of an effort by AMC to capture the coveted oddball demographic on Thursday nights.

In addition to the “Immortalized” premiere, Thursday also brings “Freakshow,” about the Venice Beach Freakshow in California and the people who run it. It’s a fairly jarring one-two slap, the kind of spectacle you know you should probably look away from, but by the time you force yourself to hunt down the remote, the ending credits are rolling.

“Immortalized” is the better of the two because it revels in its own absurdity.

“Get ready to watch art and animals collide,” says the host, Zach Selwyn.

Soon he is welcoming the Immortalizers – Beth Beverly, Dave Houser, Page Nethercutt and Takeshi Yamada – who are introduced in a hail of hyperbole reminiscent of pro wrestling or a heavyweight fight.

In the first episode a challenger named Kevin Clarke, who isn’t a taxidermist but an insect mounter, goes up against Beverly, who, we’re told, once made a hat out of a fox scrotum. Their challenge is to interpret the theme “Size Matters,” with the resulting works critiqued by three judges, who then declare a winner.

Other shows, like “American Stuffers” on Animal Planet and “Mounted in Alaska” on History, have leaned toward conventional taxidermy, but here the idea isn’t preserving a piece of nature so much as creating a piece of art. Whether the pieces really are art will depend on how liberal your definition of that word is, but when you see them, you have definitely seen something.

And if this is art, certain musty museums could take a lesson from the presentation. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to tonight’s smackdown between the Rajah of Realism, Andrew Wyeth, and the Doctor of Drip, Jackson Pollock.”

“Freakshow” is kind of drab compared with “Immortalized,” especially for anyone who has ever lived within driving distance of Coney Island. It centers on Todd Ray and his family, who run the Venice Beach Freakshow, with its collection of two-headed animals and a group of humans who have unusual skills or physical attributes.

The opening episode involves Ray’s efforts to persuade George Bell, who is 7 feet 8 inches tall, to join the show. Bell is put off by the word “freak.” Ray tries to explain that his intent is to ennoble the word, to celebrate uniqueness. It’s not a very convincing argument, but the juxtaposition of Bell and Amazing Ali, who is 3-foot-5, is kind of endearing.

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