"Wonder is still alive," says Todd Ray. "People are still curious."
Ray sure is. Wonder and curiosity led him to bail on a flourishing career as a music producer seven years ago to indulge his passion for the wondrous and odd.
Today, with the enthusiastic participation of wife Danielle, teenage son Phoenix and daughter Asia, 20 — along with their extended family of wondrous exhibitionists — Ray is the impresario of a freak show on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, Calif.
And, now, they're all poised to become TV stars, thanks to "Freakshow," an unscripted series premiering Thursday (9:30 p.m. EST) on AMC.
The Rays invite viewers to meet the gang, and — don't worry — it's OK to stare at Amazing Ali, the miniature woman; Goth-fashioned Morgue, whose bag of tricks includes plunging a drill bit up his nose; Marcus "The Creature," whose body is a tableau of tattoos and piercings; and George, who, at 7-feet-8-inches, is, well, the resident Tall Man.
Even Asia Ray has gotten into the act, transforming herself from a dutiful student and aspiring classical musician into a radiantly charming fire-eater, sword swallower and contortionist. Music school can wait. The "Freakshow" calls.
Granted, much of the reality-show genre could be branded a freak show, with the likes of Honey Boo Boo, Snooki and the Real (pick your city) Housewives freaking out for the cameras.
But in Ray's lexicon, "'Freak' isn't a bad word at all. We're all freaks of the universe," he says, meaning everyone on this exceptional planet Earth. "We're all individuals so unique that we're actually magical creatures."
No wonder he celebrates people who are even odder than most. During a recent interview he explains that, "when they join us, they're respected and they're treated well."
Ray says the series explores why they do what they do as performers, "and, if they're born uniquely different from most people, how they cope with the struggle against the 'normal' world — how they deal with society that puts them on the outside."
How should the "normal world" deal with them in return?
"You can look at those who are different from you and be excited about them," Ray proposes, "and then you can look in the mirror and be excited about yourself."
Amid all this, some viewers may wonder what an unscripted series like "Freakshow" is doing on a network known for feature films and acclaimed dramas like "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead."
But "Freakshow" isn't AMC's only departure from scripted fare.
On Thursday at 9 p.m., "Comic Book Men" resumes its second season of informed geek-chat originating from filmmaker Kevin Smith's New Jersey comic shop, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash.
Then, at 10 p.m., following "Freakshow," AMC will premiere "Immortalized," a wondrously odd competition show.
Let other competitions settle who can rustle up the best grub or shed the most pounds. "Immortalized" focuses on taxidermy.
With the motto "No guts, all glory," each episode features one of four expert "Immortalizers" facing off against a lesser-known challenger in a competition to create a winning piece that a panel will judge on originality, craft and interpretation of an assigned theme.
This unscripted trio of programs constitutes AMC's new "real original Thursdays," which builds on the run of "Comic Book Men" in its previous Sunday berth and other reality programming including "The Pitch" and "Small Town Security," which have aired in the past and will be back.
It's fitting that AMC is going off-book. A number of reality-based networks are doing just the opposite.
In 2010, AMC's sister network Sundance Channel, long acclaimed for its devotion to the unscripted genre, aired the miniseries "Carlos," which starred Edgar Ramirez as notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. In December, it presented "Restless," a miniseries starring Michelle Dockery of "Downton Abbey."
And now, with a heightened emphasis on scripted fare, Sundance has planned a slate of shows that include, starting in March, "Top of the Lake," a seven-part series written and directed by Academy Award-winning Jane Campion and starring Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men"). Airing in April, "Rectify" is a six-part drama about a man who has served 19 years on Georgia's death row before DNA evidence calls his conviction into question.
Meanwhile, Discovery Channel recently announced the production of its first-ever scripted miniseries, "Klondike," starring Chris Cooper. And reality-centric Bravo has signed actress Anna Gunn ("Breaking Bad") for the lead role in "Rita," one of several scripted pilots it has in development.
Does it seem a little strange that these networks are revising their time-honored policies? Maybe they just share Todd Ray's mantra: "Say 'No' to normal."
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier