The creative concept of FX’s American Horror Story—a continuous, anthological TV series that effectively upholds the horror genre—is quite difficult to translate to the silver screen in practice. So, it’s hardly surprising that the show ran out of steam by the end of its last season.
The American Horror Story franchise is meant to be an anthology of different horror narratives. Each season focuses on a new, distinct location. Season One centered its narrative in a haunted house in Los Angeles. Now in its second season, American Horror Story: Asylum follows characters living and working in Briarcliff Manor, a church-run mental institution.
The greatest impediment to American Horror Story’s concept is that it must sustain the horror over a prolonged amount of time, while also sophisticatedly developing its characters and maintaining a logical plot (which is lacking in many run-of-the-mill horror films). When I saw the first episode of its first season, I was pleasantly surprised by the show’s disjointed narrative style, the slickly seductive production design and the disturbingly superb performance of Jessica Lange as the sinister Southern neighbor up to no good.
Yet, with each passing episode, the show became more boring, increasingly illogical and, worst of all, not even scary. It dragged on and on, its barrage of scary and sexually taunting events too constant to have any real impact.
By the season finale, I had given up on the show entirely. That is, until I discovered that the new season would have nothing to do with the first. The second season has a completely new storyline and brings back all my favorite Season One actors: Lange, Zachary Quinto and Evan Peters.
I decided to test out the new season, and although it falls short in many ways, it has notable redeeming qualities that give me hope. First of all, the oppressive, Catholic religiosity-meets-Cuckoo’s Nest vibe is totally creepy while also allowing the show to create suspense without relying solely on blood and guts. Second of all, through the wide variety of characters, the writers are able to effectively create a spectrum of craziness that runs from the criminally insane to the chaste innocence of young nuns.
Notable performances include Lange’s Sister Jude, a sadistic, power-thirsty nun with a mess of secrets, and Quinto’s Dr. Oliver Thredson, a (seemingly) passionate and sympathetic psychoanalyst. Other cast members include Chloe Sevigny, who plays a femme fatale nymphomaniac, James Cromwell as the demented Dr. Arthur Arden and Joseph Fiennes as a piously angsty Catholic priest. All in all, American Horror Story boasts a stellar cast playing stellar roles.
A significant motif in the new season, American Horror Story: Asylum, is the constantly blurred and muddied boundary that distinguishes sanity from insanity—what does it really mean to be mentally ill? In fact, it seems that the managers of the asylum, the zealous nuns and off-their-rocker doctors, are just as crazy as—if not crazier than—the patients themselves. Inversely, many of the patients are relatively sane, trapped in an institutional system governed by politics, religion and personal agendas.
Although the show is most definitely not for everyone, it is nevertheless off to a great start and worth checking out. American Horror Story: Asylum is on FX Wednesdays at 10 p.m.