'American Horror Story': Did the season 2 premiere measure up to last year's episodes?

'American Horror Story' returns for its second season with the story now centered on an asylum.

Phil McCarten/Reuters
'American Horror Story' star Jessica Lange took home an Emmy for her role in the first season of the show.

As someone who enjoyed watching, but wasn’t exactly over the moon with season 1 of American Horror Story, I must admit considerable interest to hearing that its creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, had set the series up to be an anthology – the second helping of which would, of course, become American Horror Story: Asylum. And while the revelation that the Harmon family’s story had reached its conclusion was arguably more interesting than the story surrounding the actual Harmon family, it did offer a clue about what to expect from a narrative stand point, once season 2 got underway.

Season 1 was chock-full of every little bit of madness Murphy and Falchuk could scrounge up; there were whiffs of various film influences – both in and out of the horror genre – and enough gore, violence and jump scares to consider the series aptly named. Still, as the series trudged on, there was the overwhelming sense that it was burning the candle at both ends, so to speak – which was followed by the disclosure that American Horror Story was (and always had been?) intended to be an anthology series. This is important because, while season 1 ran at a breakneck pace for 13 episodes, the audience was left wondering just how it would all come together at the end, and what that would mean for the future of the series. Viewers entered into the series unaware that watching a dead family gather around a Christmas tree would not just be the end of the season, but the end of that particular story, as well.

As Asylum kicks off, it does so with the audience prepared for whatever storyline may be awaiting them to likely come to an actual conclusion. Therefore, the normal sense of exhilaration that comes from watching a television season reach its finale, and all that entails for the continuation of the story, is no longer an issue for AHS; the audience knows that once it’s done, it’s done. That will pose an interesting set of challenges for Murphy and Falchuk as they enter season 2.

And so, with the premiere episode, ‘Welcome to Briarcliff,’ the first thing most viewers will notice is how the writers have chosen to display their lunacy in a much more controlled fashion. That’s not to say the show has suddenly learned some manners, or bothered to look up the definition of the word “subtle,” but it just feels more like everyone is in on the joke now, everyone gets that the writers will ride this thing as hard as they can until its heart explodes, and then we’ll all just continue on with our business.

In season 1, it felt as though the madness was random, and a little rushed – which likely increased its appeal with some viewers. The storyline was largely an indiscriminate collection of horror movie tropes and freaky circumstances with equally unusual denouements that all danced around a central theme of a broken family who had unwittingly moved into a haunted house. In Asylum, Murphy and Falchuk are still inviting a whole host of bizarre images into a single structure, but this time is seems for a far more precise purpose. Perhaps that’s because they’re not burdened with making Jessica Lange’s character more central to the story after the fact, but mostly it’s because the writers have apparently had the proper time to arrange and organize the proceedings into a more cohesive whole.

Asylum begins with a twist on the kind of cold open that began season 1. Instead of beginning in the past, witnessing a gruesome even and then flashing forward, the open starts off with newlyweds Leo (Adam Levine) and Theresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) stopping off at Briarcliff in the midst of their tour of supposedly haunted places in America. After things get off to a good start, they quickly turn sour and the two wind up facing the institution’s most endearing legend in the deranged serial killer, Bloody Face. The storyline then jumps back to 1964, and quickly introduces us to its characters, paying particular attention to Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), as they’re really the only two who need to find their way into the confines of the Briarcliff sanitarium and the clutches of its professed director, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). Through Sister Jude, the episode manages to spell out the majority of the relationships at Briarcliff, which include Jude’s put-upon and callow fellow nun, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), the brilliant, but demented Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) and the object of Sister Jude’s lust, Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). There’s also a trio of more-or-less permanent guests at the facility played by Chloe Sevigny, Mark Consuelos and Lizzie Brocheré. That’s a lot of characters, and we still won’t see Zachary Quinto until episode 2.

As Murphy and Falchuk stated, season 1 was a family drama. As such, Asylum is very much all about the workplace, and all the interesting relationships that can arise from that kind of setting. Here, though, the characters feel wholly about their own personal journey, as it relates to them and to the larger question of the season – which, apparently, is about aliens, mutants, demons and the aforementioned Bloody Face. They have aspirations and dreams, and often those don’t mesh to well with their environment, or the other people around them – whichever side of the locked door they happen to be on – and that goes a long way in making them interesting.

Perhaps it’s even more surprising then that Asylum is also concerned with societal shifts and the changing worldview of the time.

And in typical Murphy and Falchuk fashion, those concerns are made apparent through incredibly broad statements that have all the inspired flare of a high-school textbook. But still, bluntly shining the spotlight on things like interracial marriages, homosexual relationships, the conflict of science vs. faith, and, as the season progresses, likely a whole lot more, is the kind of thing these guys do, and it provides a much sturdier groundwork for the season than what was presented in the first few episodes of season 1.

Besides, American Horror Story isn’t about the careful and considered study of its otherwise wacky characters – the show gleefully (no pun intended) doesn’t have time for that; it’s too busy filling each episode with a series of ecstatic jump scares, gore and hilariously inane, over-the-top antics that are the real attraction of the series. It’s just intended to be a fun ride. While there’s no telling if it’ll stay on the course it has plotted, Asylum looks ready to gallop through even the craziest bits – all the way to the bitter end.

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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