In posing its new mysteries, American Horror Story: Asylum reintroduces the first season's nightmarish craziness but also sets it within a coherent basic history.
American Horror Story's first season was audacious, drawing inspiration from horror films as well as actual events in American history, speculation and legend. It featured a high school student who massacred classmates in a fashion that echoed Columbine High School and borrowed from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score for a stabbing scene. And in recounting the story of the Harmons, a troubled family who make a particularly bad home-buying decision, the show trotted out every haunted house cliché it could remember. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck frequently obliterated the line between homage and rip-off, conjuring a bizarre pastiche that was simultaneously tiresome, absurd, and fascinating.
But as multiple ideas swirled and storylines smashed into one another, the weirdest thing of all happened: American Horror Story ended up making sense. By the end of the season, all the insanity coalesced into a coherent history of the haunted house, and the Harmons' place in that history. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the season ended without a clear road ahead. Even if the creepy next-door neighbor (Jessica Lange) might raise the Harmons' demon baby, it was hard to see how another set of episodes might be spun.
And so American Horror Story: Asylum starts fresh, with a new setting and new characters, although many cast members are returning. The first episode opens in the present day, following horny newlyweds Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan). The couple is finishing up their "haunted honeymoon" of the 12 most haunted places in America by visiting Briarcliff Manor, a dilapidated former hospital. As they roam the halls, Teresa reads aloud the site's history, which she finds on her smartphone. While it was used as a tuberculosis ward in the early part of the 20th century, the Catholic Church purchased it in 1962 and turned it into a sanitarium.
These first few minutes lay out the background for the terrible fate about to befall Leo and Teresa: woe unto them for even thinking about looking into the asylum's past. From here, American Horror Story cuts back to 1964, the primary setting for the new season. Here we meet Kit Walker (Evan Peters), a white man secretly married to a black woman and not a little worried about being discovered. When they hear strange sounds outside their house, Kit grabs his shotgun and goes to investigate, whereupon it appears that his wife is abducted by aliens. Since this is American Horror Story, this scene is pretty much your classic TV alien abduction, with Kit blinded by white lights and surrounded by flying household items -- until he blacks out.
In the following scene, also set in 1964, reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) arrives at Briarcliff, ostensibly working up a puff piece on the sanitarium's bakery. It's not long before the head nun, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), ferrets out Lana's not-so-hidden agenda, that is, to interview the notorious serial murderer called Bloody Face, newly transferred to Briarcliff. Jude has no intention of giving Lana access to her incoming patient, and it's fair to say the two women dislike each other instantly.
Their tension forms an emotional scaffold for the second season's first two episodes, along with the establishment of some typical insane asylum beats. We meet an assortment of inmates, from the offbeat to the seemingly sane to the downright ugly. James Cromwell is delightfully reserved yet twisted as Dr. Arden, a mad scientist who regularly butts heads with Sister Jude over who is in charge of the facility. In one of the more unusual subplots, Arden has a young disciple in Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), whom he sends out daily to deliver buckets of meat to the forest outside the compound. Yes, Arden is keeping something at bay, but nobody else seems to be aware of the threat.
With this sinister setting and its administrators at odds, the show seems primed to present a "crazy person of the week" format. The second episode dives right in, with a teenager possessed by demons and a medley of exorcism tropes, including guttural voices and a priest thrown across the room. When Kit shows up as a patient, Asylum provides him with predictably confusing flashbacks in which he's the subject of experiments in a stark white space. For now, we don't see the aliens, which leaves open the possibility that someone else is conducting these abuses.
In posing this and other mysteries, American Horror Story: Asylum reintroduces the first season's nightmarish craziness but also sets it within a coherent basic history. It helps too that the new cast appears to be so tight, as last year's erratic tone seemed an effect of both storytelling and acting. As Harmon, Dylan McDermott's performance was frequently overwrought, while Connie Britton played his wife as if she was in another movie, quieter and slow-burning. The reboot -- so far, anyway -- emphasizes American Horror Story's focus on B-movie schlock, an idea glimpsed last year but inconsistently. The mid-'60s in United States are a perfect backdrop for straight-faced, unnerving horror. Just so, the American part of this horror story seems more pronounced this time around.