Oct 31, 2013

[TV] American Horror Story: Season 2 (Asylum)

Happy Halloween, everyone!

And what better way to celebrate today's spooky holiday with an appropriately spooky review, right? And there are few shows that capture the Halloween tone better than American Horror Story.

I don't think any of us really knew what to expect when this show first aired. After all, it was a horror TV series put together by the folks who gave us Glee. But then things just came together and their particular brand of crazy drama happened to make a lot more sense in a horror setting.

But then this second season took things into an even stranger direction given how the show doesn't exactly continue its stories from season to season. Apart from the reuse of actors from the first season, this second season features a completely different story in a completely different setting. Thus we're really looking more a each season acting as an independent serial of sorts - something that may just work for the series in the long run.

The show's third season, Coven,  has already begun airing, but for now we'll focus on the second.


Synopsis: American Horror Story: Asylum is the second season of the horror drama series. It was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk for FX. The show has received numerous nominations (and of course a few wins) and the complete change in story has led to everyone treating this as an anthology TV series of sorts.

It is 1964 and our story centers around the Briarcliff Mental Health Institution in Masachusetts, although we do periodically jump to the modern day. The asylum is primarily run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) all reporting to Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). Other staff include Psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and potentially mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell).

A number of things happen that lead to a few inmates of interest being incarcerated at Briarcliff for treatment. One is accused serial rapist Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who may have also been subject to an alien abduction experience. There's lesbian journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who wanted an exclusive on Walker but ended up an inmate herself. And there's alleged murderer Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), whose relevance becomes clearer over time. We eventually learn more about the individual lives of certain inmates and those who run Briarcliff itself and of course the greater mystery pushing everything forward.

At first the show seemed like a hot mess with so much going on. The weirdest side plot thrown was definitely the extraterrestrial angle that never really panned out into anything meaningful later on. But given a season that also involved demonic possession, Nazi experiments and rather twisted religious individuals and you have one crazy show indeed. But oddly enough the seemingly ridiculous plots manage to work when you get past the first few episodes and you get over the fact that you're seeming the same faces in different roles.

That really shouldn't have gotten to me so much, but I guess I started the season with a traditional TV show in mind. With the titles being more or less the same, one can't help but associate the first season with the second in a rather direct manner. But from the get-go we have a lot of the same players in very different roles but still doing rather depraved things.

Jessica Lange is naturally the delight of this series. She has portrayed powerful women in both seasons in a manner that only she could. And she remains one of the biggest reasons I stayed with the show despite the rather drastic change in story tone. She may not be playing the same woman, but she's still the same amazing actress and the writers knew how to use her to maximum effect. It's a major bit of fan service to keep her in the show, but hey, I like being pandered to.

And the fan service didn't end there. Given an opening sequence that involved Adam Levine and the continued casting of the likes of Zachary Quinto, well, you know the show knows how to take care of its audience. Each had their own role to play in things relatively in line with their acting ability. So sorry Adam, but you do make great cannon fodder more than anything else.

Is the show outright scary? Well, not in a traditional Hollywood horror movie sense, no. Instead you do have a story that can get rather disturbing with some visual sequences that push the limits of what you can do on pay TV. But that helps the story shine through more and resonates with the sort of horror drama stories that used to dominate the small screen market in previous years.

American Horror Story: Asylum really pushed the show's core horror concept to a new level and became an interesting vehicle for telling rather human stories in an exaggerated way. But the craziness works and provides a lot for folks to enjoy and if you haven't given the show a chance, maybe this Halloween would be the perfect time to do so. This second anthology gets 4.5 grotesque human experiments out of a possible 5 - and that last half of a point is all because of the brilliant use of the song Dominique.



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