The second season of American Horror Story debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
At its heart, American Horror Story is a coffeetable book. It’s something designed to keep viewers flipping those big, glossy pages, until they stumble upon something that rattles them or makes them laugh. It doesn’t terribly care if there’s a common thread running through its many tales of horror—which include aliens, serial killers, demonic possession, and strange beasts who live in the woods this season, among others—so long as it can cram everything it has in its head into one season of TV. Whether this is a problem will depend on the viewer, but at least this second season—dubbed Asylum, or, in the credits, American Horror Story Asylum—is slightly more coherent at its start than the show’s first was. On the other hand, that might remove one of the primary elements so many love about the show.
Where the first season of AHS was conceived of and written almost as it was being produced, co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and their writers’ room have had more time to come up with a cohesive, coherent storyline for season two. In other words, the show still employs the tactic of throwing as many different types of monsters and horror-movie tropes at the wall as it can think of, but now, there’s been an attempt to find some way to tie them all together on some foundational level. The characters in the show still do idiotic things, and there’s still a constant sense that the writers are making a lot of this up as they go along, but the show’s overall feel is now as if the scripts made it to a third or fourth draft, instead of being rushed down to the set mere minutes after being written.
The second season doesn’t pick up from where the first season left off, instead telling a completely new story (for the handful of you who may not have known that already). That new story, however, gives a better sense of what Murphy and Falchuk value about horror, beyond mere shock scares and moments of sexual transgression. For starters, the show’s constant belief that horror is tied as much to place as any other factor returns. In the universe of this show, evil grows in tendrils from a central location, and once your life touches that location in some small way, it’s forever cursed. But where season one offered up a fairly standard haunted house tale, at its base, season two’s ambitions have stepped up considerably. This season, the central horrors stem from the titular asylum, a building purchased by the Catholic Church in 1962, with hopes of reforming the mentally ill and sexually deviant. This goes as well as anything the Catholic Church has tried in that regard throughout history.
It’s hard to say who the center of Asylum is meant to be. Is it Jessica Lange’s complicated Sister Judith, ostensible head of the sanitarium, into whose psyche and lusts the series enjoys delving? Is it James Cromwell’s Dr. Arden, a man so depraved that he almost certainly won’t end up being the villain? Or is it a trio of unfortunates, imprisoned in the asylum against their wills, the better to “cure” them of such ills as being a lesbian or determine whether they’re fit to stand trial for murders they’re almost certainly innocent of? Or is it, finally, the season’s most intriguing creation, a serial killer named Bloody Face, whose legend persists to the present day, where a pair of newlyweds played by Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan Tatum attempt to unravel his legacy and find more than they bargained for? First billed in the credits is Zachary Quinto, who plays the thoroughly “modern” psychiatrist Dr. Thredson, but he doesn’t even turn up until episode two. Yes, there’s a lot going on here, and we haven’t even gotten to Joseph Fiennes as a priest who, sadly, does not once say that he was loaded, okay?
What’s fascinating about this isn’t just how remarkably streamlined it is for how much it has going on, but also how Murphy, Falchuk, and their writers seem to almost be—in their own earnestly clumsy way—attempting to tell the flipside of a series like Mad Men, which is firmly set from the point-of-view of the status quo, that viewers might watch the cataclysmic change of the ‘60s from people who were relatively unaffected by it (save maybe Peggy). Asylum, then, is largely about the status quo’s attempt to deal with threats to its dominance and certainty, be those threats people in homosexual relationships or people in interracial marriages or any number of other things. To be sure, this is all conveyed in just about the most obvious way possible—there’s none of Mad Men’s weird lyricism, and the show doesn’t want weird lyricism—but it already gives the season a firmer foundation than season one ever had. In a twisted way, this is a workplace drama, and like many other workplace dramas over the years, it’s going to tackle Important Social Issues, usually through speechifying and exposition.
At times, Asylum feels like an all-out attack on the rigidity of organized religion and socially conservative worldviews that attempt to put people into narrow boxes and straitjackets. Yet it’s also a series at war with itself, because it believes that there are situations in which something like organized religion might be necessary. Granted, some of those—like a demonic possession—are the sort that will only come up in stories like this, but the portrayal of Catholicism here is surprisingly nuanced all the same. These are people doing some awful things, yet they have goals and drives and dreams like anyone else might, and when they do extremely terrible things, the show always makes you acutely aware—often clumsily—of their motivations.
All of this could feel unfocused, and it occasionally does, to be sure. But there’s also a fairly solid throughline for each individual episode. The first involves Sarah Paulson’s reporter, Lana Winters, launching an investigation of the sanitarium in an attempt to find the psychotic killer who was brought there and interview him. The second involves three patients working up the wherewithal to escape and attempting to find the means to do so. There are also all sorts of other storylines tossed around the edges, like weekly check-ins with those newlyweds in the present day, occasional flashes to a character being taken aboard an alien spaceship, that serial killer stalking his victims, the sexual depravities of Cromwell’s character, and an exorcism, so Ryan Murphy can show the audience that he’s, yes, seen The Exorcist.
Asylum, then, starts more promisingly than season one of the show did, even if there are numerous clumsy bits and pieces. Yet at the same time, part of the fun of American Horror Story is in the way the show tosses so much shit at the wall to see what will stick. By making the overall engine underneath the show run more smoothly than it did in season one, Asylum makes it easier to take the abrupt left turns into goofy horror parody or outright, over-the-top comedy. (And at least one of the major complaints about season one—the oversampling of classic horror scores—has either been toned down or removed altogether, unless the screeners sent out to critics have temp tracks.) This is always going to be a series some viewers simply reject because of how unfocused it is, how much it resembles flipping through that coffeetable book, but for those who can get on its wavelength, Asylum promises happy scares and a goofy good time, all with a thematic underpinning that makes the ridiculousness easier to swallow, the spoonful of medicine that makes the several pounds of sugar go down.