The first two episodes of the second season of "American Horror Story" (Wed., Oct. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on FX) are a weird, queasy melange of sensuality, repression, terror and gruesome imagery. I quite enjoyed them.
That sentence is not a trick. Nor, perhaps, a treat for those who agreed with my assessment of Season 1 as a frustrating venture into chaotic narcissism. But I am on board for "American Horror Story: Asylum." Much to my surprise, I am genuinely interested to see where it'll go next. It's a show designed to shock, and so far, the biggest shock is my unexpected interest in "Asylum's" fever-dream.
Though "American Horror Story: Asylum" shares some cast members with the first incarnation of the show, it is not a continuation of the Season 1 story, and I am not remotely sorry to say goodbye to the whiny yuppie pair at the heart of that tale, which was only intermittently effective. The second season of the show, which is largely set in a New England mental asylum in the 1960s, feels more cohesive and narratively direct, and there's no doubt that the period setting works in "Asylum's" favor.
Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk aren't terribly interested in subtlety or nuance, and the forbidding archetypes that Jessica Lange and James Cromwell play could have sprung directly from the brain of Douglas Sirk, or rather, the ill-fated and genetically cursed love child of Sirk, David Cronenberg and Sylvia Plath. Murphy has long been concerned with the idea of power and who gets to wield it, and an era in which the people who ran institutions were truly unquestioned authorities is a good fit for his obsessions with hierarchies, exclusion, punishment and rules. The consequences for rule-breakers in this era -- especially ambitious and non-conforming women -- are severe, and the fact that certain trajectories follow familiar arcs doesn't necessarily make them any less effective.
It's refreshing that the major storytelling threads of "Asylum" more or less make a kind of sense and exhibit restraint when appropriate, at least so far. Lange plays the magisterial nun in charge of the wonderfully dank, shadowy asylum, and she's flat-out transfixing. Murphy no doubt lures so many quality actors to his shows by tantalizing them with the opportunity to play big, broad characters, but both Lange nor Cromwell (who plays the asylum's mad scientist) walk right up to the line of hamminess without crossing over to the dark side. These magnetic performers make a meal of their roles without overtly licking their chops, and only Cromwell could deliver the line, "This is my time -- the time of SCIENCE!" without making the audience laugh. Actually, the entire cast, including an able Sarah Paulson as a reporter, an energetic Chloe Sevigny as an inmate and a grave Joseph Fiennes as a priest, are able to fully embrace both the campiness and the seriousness of the enterprise, which I'd imagine is much harder than it looks (Zachary Quinto deserves particular mention for savvily underplaying his psychiatrist role).
It's to the credit of "Asylum's" writers, directors and cast that the emotional pain of the characters often feels as real as their uncertainty and terror. Style does matter a lot (and the production design is as terrific as it was in Season 1), but there are important moments in which the aesthetic style doesn't overpower the attempts at substance. The first season of "American Horror Story" contained more than its share of horror homages, but here, the cinematic and thematic references feel as though they're in service of the story, not the main reason for it.
Never mind all that: What about the monsters? They're the real engines here and they're a by-now familiar mixture of the usual suspects and freaky wild cards. At the end of the day, this show is the exact opposite of "Boardwalk Empire": Having a plot that can be elegantly diagrammed is the least of "American Horror Story's" concerns. I appreciate "Asylum's" stronger commitment to linearity and cohesion, but it's clear that the goal here is to create the sensations of an addictive nightmare. This show gleefully resists logical analysis: It is at times maniacally intent on making the viewer submit to its fetid, furtive, subversive atmosphere of guilt, pain, desire and fear.
In that regard, "Asylum" simply works, at least in its first two episodes. The aesthetic choices, that well-crafted sensory melange, as well as several mesmerizing performances and a number of propulsive set pieces conspire to create a compelling and even hypnotic stew. The seven or so Season 1 episodes I saw felt like a series of half-realized excursions and sloppy diversions, but "Asylum's" feels like a different beast altogether, in more ways than one. "Asylum" delineates a set of concerns and questions that aren't original (at least a dozen mental hospital movies and documentaries are evoked in the look, the characters and the dialogue), but those concerns are depicted with great conviction and often effective vehemence. Oh, and at times, it's scary as hell.
Of course, whether "Asylum" works for you may well depend on whether you share the cultural history and philosophical concerns at the core of the enterprise. Like Murphy, I am a 46-year-old Midwesterner who is the product of Catholic schools and an Irish heritage, and I have the therapy bills to prove it. If there is a part of my brain that is able to resist Jessica Lange in a nun's habit wielding a riding crop, I have not been able to locate it.
The messy collision of fear and desire; the conflict between the need to be seen as "good" and the inevitable tendency to rebel against conformity; the idea that the Devil is an intelligent charmer and ferociously committed opponent whose ways are as mysterious as God's; the idea that the contents of your mind are driving you mad or could be made to drive you crazy: all these things are laid out upon "Asylum's" grisly examining table. The question of whether our desires make us evil is, like the rest of "Asylum," not particularly new, but the package that query is wrapped in held my interest for two solid hours. For God's sake, "Asylum" even threw in an element that couldn't be more designed to appeal to the nerdier part of my brain (a clue about that is below, and it's not too spoilery, given that it refers to events that happen midway through the first episode).
I go into the next 11 episodes of "American Horror Story: Asylum" knowing that it could very easily tip over into self-parody; as it is, there are a number of scenes in which actors give speeches that could be titled "Here Is the Point of My Character." Its bloodier moments could trigger my flight response, given that I don't have much of a capacity to tolerate gore and the horror genre has never been my thing. The battles between sadistic, withholding characters and wide-eyed dupes could become predictable, or the whole enterprise could simply spin out of control. "American Horror Story" doesn't do things by half-measures, and there's a chance my newfound fascination could curdle into contempt.
"Asylum" is balanced on a knife's edge. And I have a feeling Murphy wouldn't want it any other way.
Possibly spoilery "American Horror Story: Asylum" clue:
There's a strong intimation that aliens are involved in the events of this season. Alien invasion plus charismatic nuns? I'm not made of stone, people. For me, for now, resistance is futile.
For more on why you should tune in to "American Horror Story: Asylum" this time around, check out my colleagues Maggie Furlong and Jaimie Etkin's 10 reasons why Season 2 has changed for the better.
"American Horror Story: Asylum" premiers on Wed., Oct. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.
One last note: Ryan McGee and I discuss "AHS: Asylum" in the Talking TV podcast below (along with "Hunted," "Emily Owens, M.D." and "Suburgatory"). More Talking TV podcasts can be found here and on iTunes.