As entertaining as the first season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story was, it steered so gleefully for unpredictability and excess that the wheels did eventually fall off.
As mad and as overblown as Asylum is, there’s a stronger spine and a clearer concept. It’s darker, funnier, cleverer, scarier and more consistent than its predecessor. If Murder House was delicious junk food, Asylum is a five-star feast.
1964. Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is committed to the Briarcliff Mental Institution, suspected of being the serial killer Bloody Face, while reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) goes undercover at the asylum, only to find herself committed by the vicious Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) for her homosexuality. As Lana determines to root out the evil at Briarcliff, she’ll find more than she bargained for: namely mutants, Nazis, demonic possession, serial killers and alien abductions.
Giving the second season a more coherent central plot does not make it any more predictable. In addition to the aforementioned monsters, there are time-jumps, flashbacks, shocking deaths and even a musical number courtesy of Lange. While it’s an effective vehicle for the creators to explore a cornucopia of different horror traditions and tropes, it’s also a safe place for a talented cast; James Cromwell, Zachary Quinto and especially Lily Rabe get to go to some outrageous places without breaking our suspension of disbelief. Asylum luxuriates in its excesses with an arch sense of humour that keeps it from being utterly ludicrous.
For all the exorcisms and unnecessary surgery, the show does not lose sight of the human beings in the midst of this insanity, depicting the shocking treatment and persecution of those whose sexuality was deemed to be aberrant with the appropriate lack of flinching, helped by excellent, sensitive turns from Paulson and Peters. Presiding over all is Lange, who is quite simply glorious and deserves every bit of praise that she has received.
Asylum has a stronger sense of identity and purpose without sacrificing the unpredictability and the fun that made the first season such an enjoyable viewing experience. Mad? Certainly, but with the requisite intelligence, wit and heart to make it essential viewing.