For all the grand, proudly trumpeted changes to the show’s dynamic in American Horror Story Season 2 – the new characters, the new setting, the use of pseudo-science rather than the supernatural, the new title of American Horror Story: Asylum – so much of it is eerily familiar.
Obviously you’ve got the sex – one character, Leo (Adam Levine of vaguely meaningful flavour-of-last-month Maroon 5) gets his arm torn off by a mysterious assailant just as his new wife, Theresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, IRL wife of everyone’s favourite topless punching man Channing Tatum) is about to take him to mouth town – and you’ve got the slightly disconcerting approach to the differently abled, this time Fifties sideshow jeering at ‘pin heads’ instead of an abused lass with Down’s Syndrome pleading “I want to be a pretty girl!” for Halloween. Mainly, though, the most screechingly obvious commonality is a short of hysterical overacting that makes ITV’s pantomime period drama Downton Abbey, look as emotionally austere as an Edwardian birthday card. Characters can’t help but be constantly emoting something – even restraint in the case of the sadistic, Nurse Ratchet-esque Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who is definitely the loudest person in the world when she’s not saying anything, constantly glowering, smirking or pursing her lips in disapproval.
As with Season 1, American Horror Story: Asylum starts as it means to go on with its first episode – filling the screen with taboo-bothering on every level in search of that elusive dog-whistle topic that will make everyone uncomfortable. And there’s so much to see, even by the dizzying standards of the first season, which seems almost claustrophobic and reduced in comparison.
It’s 1964, and whitebread mechanic Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is believed to be the serial killer Bloody Face due to the horrific skinning of his black wife, Alma (Britne Oldford) while he claims he was abducted by aliens – leading to his incarceration in the terrifying mental health panopticon that is Briarfcliff. Journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Poulson) is trying to get the exclusive on Bloody Face to stick it to the newspaper that insists she write about cakes and cooking, but as a lesbian in an era when any straying from the social norm makes her vulnerable, Sister Jude conspires to have her committed. Also prowling the halls of Briarcliff is Girl Interrupted-style, hollow-eyed nymphomaniac Shelley (Chloë Sevigny), the seemingly sane and rational Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), and obvious dickhead Spivey (Mark Consuelos), who immediately starts a fight with Kit.
On staff is the ambitious, slimy and suspiciously irreligious Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), desired by the uptight Sister Jude. Howard has given sanctuary to Dr Arden (James Cromwell), a cool and avuncular maniac who conducts lethal experiments on patients who won’t be missed. Sister Jude, out of disapproval for his viciousness that outstrips even her pious cruelty and his free reign in a world she controls almost every aspect of, locks horns with Briarcliff’s Victor Frankenstein in what will doubtless be the first of many pissing matches. Sister Mary Eunich (Lily Rabe), meanwhile, is a gullible idiot, thoroughly beaten down by Sister Jude and terrified of some sort of creature lurking outside the institution.
While one plot unfolds in 1964, Theresa and Leo, a couple who seem to break into creepy old buildings just for hot sexings, are being chased around the abandoned Briarcliff by what appears to be the real Bloody Face, but is this whatever creature was hunting Sister Moron Stupid, or the bleak future awaiting one of the 1964 cast members? And are there really aliens and what’s Bloody Face’s connection to them? And what in the name of bedside manner was that massive spoiler that Dr Arden pulled out of massive spoiler?
American Horror Story: Asylum is easy to find fault with, but that’s simply because so much is thrown at your face in the series’ first 40-plus minutes that it’s difficult for some of it to not be entirely risible – whether the dreadful acting, the volume of soft porn interludes, or the hysterically overcooked personal relationship and accompanying hammy dialogue, and the general Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? acting. With the first episode of Season 1 is was incredibly difficult to see how they were planning on spinning it out beyond two episodes, and that’s certainly not something you can level at ‘Welcome To Briarcliff’ – there’s enough drama and mystery set up to keep us going well into 2013, and enough chilling, stomach-turning visuals of quasi-mediaeval healthcare, torture and physical abuse to keep us up into the small hours.