Let me start right off the bat by saying that the cast of FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum was fantastic. No one was phoning their performances in on this show. There was some remarkable talent on display in these 13 episodes. Unfortunately, a diamond covered in sh*t still smells like sh*t, and everything beyond the cast of season two of AHS was prime Grade-A sh*t.
The first season of American Horror Story played like a super-long horror movie. There was legitimate mystery surrounding the “Murder House” and the various ghosts that lived there. Maybe it took a couple of episodes to really find its legs, but it was very rewarding when it was over. When the season wrapped everything up in a neat package, all of the characters got a definitive ending. The story was over. What happens next for the critically acclaimed horror show?
News came down that some of the cast would be returning to season two, but that the re-named American Horror Story: Asylum would be a completely new story. It was a pretty bold choice, but it made sense. The old anthology series was turned on its ear by focusing on full seasons rather than single episodes. Like many others, I was anxiously awaiting the premiere. Then it all went horribly wrong.
The first season of American Horror Story was at its core about a haunted house and the family that lived in it. If you’re describing it to someone, that’s really all you have to say. If I had to summarize the plot of Asylum, I’d try to do it thusly:
American Horror Story: Asylum is about a mental institution called Briarcliff Manor in the 60’s owned by the church and run by a sadistic nun who once ran over a little girl and ran away. The devil possesses her most innocent nun and then goes on a spree of sexually aggressive flirting with the Nazi war criminal acting as the asylum’s doctor. He turns people into monsters and the devil wants to… Look, I don’t really know what the devil wants exactly. She rapes a priest at one point… So there’s that? A reporter tries to expose the corruption at the manor, but is instead institutionalized for being gay. The asylum’s therapist befriends her, but he’s actually a serial killer known as Bloody Face. The man the police think is Bloody Face is also locked away in Briarcliff, but he didn’t kill anyone. He was framed. He just looks really suspicious on account of his wife disappearing, but she was abducted by aliens. The angel of death stalks the manor for a bit and everything comes out more or less okay for the good guys before dragging on for three more episodes. Oh, and there’s also a framing story set in the modern day that goes largely ignored in the middle of the season about the son of Bloody Face in 2012.
It is an absolute train wreck. Season 1 was a clean ghost story. Season 2 has essentially every other possible sub genre of horror save werewolves and vampires in an absolute mess of plot. The divergent threads start and end seemingly at random with no real connection. The aliens who kidnap the women poor Kit Walker loves and have the power to raise the dead have absolutely nothing to do with the story of the devil masquerading as a nun. Even worse, there’s no payoff to the alien story at all. It just… happens.
The same can be said for most of American Horror Story Asylum. Things just happen randomly. Just when it seems like there can’t possibly be any more layers of ridiculousness, it hits you with more. Once the season started to wind down, it got oddly worse. The writing was so sloppy and there simply so many plots going on at once that they couldn’t possibly wrap them all cohesively and simultaneously, especially considering they added yet another subplot four episodes from the end. The end result is a cluster of four episodes at the tail end of the season that drag forever as the show tries to wrap up. It has to touch on over a dozen primary characters, but even so, it takes way too long. The last two episodes could have easily been trimmed to one. It’s as if they got caught off guard by having 13 episodes to fill and so they threw five movie scripts in a blender and made this sh*tty milkshake.
That’s the worst tragedy about Asylum. Any one of these plots would have made for a decent story. No one thread was particularly weak (okay, the alien thing went nowhere). There’s a good narrative buried underneath the weight of its parts. It was absolutely suffocated by all of the mess around it. Things just kept happening and not in a “Every story is things happening” kind of way. It was one more separate thread after another piled high and at some point, none if made any sense at all. It took a long time for me to work up the strength to watch the last few episodes in my DVR.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything where the gulf between quality of performances and quality of story was so immense. Zachary Quinto returns to the show as the evil Dr. Threadson/Bloody Face. James Cromwell is the sadistic Nazi scientist now called “Arden.” Joseph Fiennes is amazing as the ambitious priest with eyes on the Vatican, only to have his virtue stolen by Lily Rabe’s creepy devil nun. You could write tomes about what these actors did with the absolute mess they were given to work with. Sarah Paulson did the lion’s share of the heavy lifting as reporter Lana Winters from victim to dead-eyed celebrity, but there’s not a weak performance in the entire show.
This show was one of the most disappointing follow-ups I’ve ever experienced in any medium, but there’s hope for the future. American Horror Story was renewed for a third season in November. At this point, it’s impossible to know what to expect. Maybe next year we’ll complete the set with some vampires and werewolves. No one else is doing that on TV, right? With any luck, they’ve gotten all the terrible out of their system and next year will go a long towards purging this nonsense from our collective memory. It had better. I’ll be a lot more wary going in next year. You should do the same, dear reader.
If you want to see some legitimately good horror storytelling, check out season 1 on Netflix. It’s pretty fantastic.