The following post contains spoilers for the season premiere of “American Horror Story: Asylum.”
Ryan Murphy has never seemed to feel the need to give his shows or his characters much by way of internal consistency, an anything goes quality I find maddening in something like “Glee” but that actually suited the oversized gothic cartoon that was “American Horror Story” season one (co-created by Murphy with Brad Falchuk). Demon babies, ghost feuds, afterlife break-ups and the Anti-Christ — there was a feeling that whatever came up in the writers’ room was legitimately fair game no matter how crazy or nonsensical. Who needs explanations when you have the supernatural?
In its second season, “American Horror Story: Asylum,” the FX series actually has a better excuse than ever to be nuts — it’s set in a mental ward, Briarcliff Manor, which a pair of present-day honeymooners (played by Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan) with an unfortunately fondness for visiting spooky abandoned locales explain is now one of the 12 most haunted places in America. The season is a near-complete reset, with some returning castmembers (chief among them Jessica Lange) but new characters, locations and an era — aside from the framing story, the main narrative is set in 1964. The reboot isn’t just a good move in allowing these changes, it offered an out from a first season arc that really couldn’t have been continued and a way to go back to zero and start building up a brand new sort of madness.
And “Asylum” wastes no time with that — there’s something admirable about the way last night’s premiere, “Welcome to Briarcliff,” gets in two sex scenes, an arm severing and an apparent alien visitation before even arriving at its main setting in full 1960s working order. Written by Tim Minear (who scripted two episodes in season one) and directed by Bradley Buecker, the season introduces a mental ward that’s gleefully hellish, from the violent killers it houses to its tortures as treatments. Its portrayal of the inhabitants attempts to be neither realistic nor PC — the first patient we see is the microcephalic Pepper (Naomi Grossman), who entreats the visiting journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) to play with her, offering her a rose. She looks harmless, but as young nun Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) cheerfully explains, she not: “She drowned her sister’s baby and sliced his ears off.”
Moments like that provide a reminder that the show is over-the-top by design and is meant, at least sometimes, to be a laugh. And the preeningly nasty performance from Lange as the institution’s head nun Sister Jude dares you not to giggle a little. Lange and Murphy seem to be on the same page when it comes to the tone of the series, with Lange glorying in snapping at her underlings, offering beatings and degrading haircuts to patients, lusting over Joseph Fiennes as institution head Monsignor Timothy Howard and finally blackmailing Lana’s lesbian lover Wendy (Clea DuVall) into committing her by threatening to reveal the nature of their relationship. It’s a giant, campy performance, but there’s more than enough chewable scenery to go around, enough to accomodate guest star Chloë Sevigny as grabby nymphomaniac Shelley and James Cromwell as mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden.
“We have such dreams for this place,” Sister Jude tells Lana before realizing the reporter has no interest in merely touting the nun’s good works. Sister Jude’s ideas for the asylum are alarming — she believes that mental illness is actually just a “fashionable” term for sin — but Arden’s are just as troubling, with his certainty that there’s a biological location and explanation for evil that he can find via unanesthetized experiments. Neither the sides of faith nor science seem like a great choice in the world of Briarcliff, but when your apparent protagonist Kit Walter (Evan Peters) is either a serial killer or an unfairly blamed alien abductee, deciding who’s sane in the show is obviously a tougher challenge than dividing up the staff and patients.
It’s hard to say if “American Horror Story” has gotten better in its nascent second season or if we’ve just gotten used to its distinctive form of Jackson Pollock-painting-with-entrails crazy, but the show feels more coherent in this first episode if just as filled with the potential for anything to happen. It’s still more preposterous than hair-raising, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. I can’t wait until the reveal that the characters are either all existing in the head of the actually totally nuts Kit or that the whole thing exists on another planet as part of a study of humans being done by extraterrestrial beings.