AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, Season 2 (2012)
Seriously, Ryan Murphy, after creating POPULAR and NIP/TUCK, also created GLEE, that massively popular 15-minute wonder that tried to straddle the earnest HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL market and the snarky post-modern sting of, well, whatever passes for post-modern snarkiness. I watched GLEE when it had first come out, mostly for comic actress Jane Lynch (she’s only pretending to be gay because she knows she can’t have me), and the one thing that struck me about the show was how it tried to be progressive and right-on but still clung to tired tropes like the effeminate gay student, the Jewish girl with the Streisand/Midler fixation, etc. That, and it had lots of songs. Lots. To be honest, I don’t even know if it’s still on.
So, when the first season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY started in October 2011 on the FX network, my expectations of it equalled my knowledge of what was to come (I expected some sort of ROCKY HORROR shenanigans). Starring Dylan McDermott (HARDWARE), Zachary Quinto (HEROES) and Jessica Lange (KING KONG), the first season concerned the Hanson family, who move into a spacious mansion, unaware of its bloody history and capacity to entrap the spirits of those who die within its walls. It was bloody, complex, perverse (the gimp suit featured became iconic), blackly comic and gripping. And the cast was excellent, in particular Lange, as the mad, manipulative neighbour Constance Langdon, sometimes friend, sometimes foe of the Hansons, and always knowing more than she reveals. The first series drew consistently high ratings for the FX network, becoming the biggest new cable series of 2011.
A second season was inevitable, but there was much speculation about the direction it would take (without giving anything away, the ending of the first season was pretty conclusive). Then it was explained that most of the original cast would return, but in different roles in a different story (harking back to the anthology series in the Golden Age of TV, it remains a strong creative tool, allowing a cast to retain its chemistry and an audience to retain its interest). Fine, I thought, so long as Lange remains involved. Still, could lightning strike twice for the show?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: Fuck, yes!
Whereas the theme of the first season deals with Infidelity, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM deals with Insanity. It opens with a modern couple (Jenna Dewan, THE GRUDGE 2, and Adam Levine, THE VOICE) visiting the abandoned Briarcliff Mental Institute to have a look around and maybe have some sex (though I have to say, the skankiest motel would be preferable to that dingy hellhole). They hear a noise inside one of the isolation rooms, and The Woman entices the Man to stick his hand in through the food slot to film the interior with his cell phone. Yeah, good move, Goober…
Something within rips his arm off. And the credits roll… (By the way, the credits are among the most nightmarish you’ll find on TV – and perfectly in keeping with the rest of the show) as we flash back to 1964, where we will be spending the majority of our time. Young mechanic Kit Walker (Evan Peters, KICK ASS) has secretly married Alma (Britne Oldford, SKINS) – secretly because this is 1964 and Alma is black. One night, their house is enveloped in a vortex of light and magnetism, and Kit encounters a spindly humanoid creature… we miss out on the anal probe, but learn that Alma and several women are dead, drained of blood and beheaded, and that for some reason Kit’s story of alien visitation isn’t believed. Believing him to be the masked serial killer Bloodyface, he’s taken to Briarwood for an assessment. Kit Walker (wasn’t that the name of the comic book hero The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks? Come on, Murphy, we know you read Anythinghorror, tell us!) is in a bit of a bind: if he’s found sane, he faces the electric chair, but if he’s found insane, he’ll spend it in the care of the Institute’s chief nun, Sister Jude (Lange).
Sister Jude is every bad nun you’ve ever feared: sadistic, intelligent, hateful of patriarchy, and possessing a collection of instruments for the bare-assed chastisements she inflicts on inmates and staff alike. She takes an instant dislike to visiting journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, THE SPIRIT), who threatens to expose the abuse ongoing at Briarwood. But Lana is a lesbian, and when Jude discovers this, she blackmails Lana’s schoolteacher lover Wendy (Clea Duvall, GHOSTS OF MARS) into signing commitment papers for Lana.
Jude also faces opposition from the Institute’s doctor, Arthur Arden (James Cromwell, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT), who likes to experiment on the inmates and has a thing for Jude’s naive assistant, Sister Mary Eunace (Lily Rabe, MONA LISA SMILE) and is creating things which live in the surrounding woods. And are hungry. Other staff and inmates include visiting psychiatrist Dr Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), whose rational and sympathetic approach is sorely tested; inmate Grace (Lizzie Brochere), who befriends both Kit and Lana, and Shelley (Chloe Sevigny, ZODIAC), who had been committed for her nymphomania (if this were 2012 instead of 1964, she’d have her own reality show).
AMERICAN HORROR STORY – ASYLUM, if anything, takes all the successful elements of the first season and cranks them up to 11. It has more story, frenetic pacing, disturbing imagery and bombastic acting than any three or four movies I’ve had to suffer through in recent years. It must surely be one of the most wonderfully fucked up shows on American TV today. Seriously. It’s beautifully written, shot, acted and directed. There are so many ingredients thrown into the pot – X-FILES style alien encounters, serial killers, Things in the Woods, pinheads, sadistic nuns, perverse doctors, ghosts, demonic possessions, exorcisms, spankings – that it should all be a mess. But it works. It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly not boring.
Lange’s Sister Jude remains the central character, and while there is much to loathe about her character and the power she wields over others, by the second episode we learn more about her, making her, if not more sympathetic, at least more understandable. Kudoes also to James Cromwell, whose depraved image here will shock anyone who only knows him as the farmer from Babe or as Zefram Cochrane from STAR TREK.
Grim, grisly and ghoulishly fun, AMERICAN HORROR – ASYLUM is turning out to be one hell of a ride. If you haven’t watched it yet, I urge you to catch up and join the rest of us. I have a feeling it’s gonna go from strength to strength. It must surely be better viewing than MOCKINGBIRD LANE…
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 3 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien