The first season of “American Horror Story” gave us men in rubber bondage suits, teenage murderers, ghost housekeepers with extremely active libidos, very creepy pregnancies and nosy neighbor Jessica Lange repeatedly gnawing on every corner of crown-molded scenery in the haunted house next door. It was perverse, occasionally disturbing and totally addictive, a show that, along with AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” confirmed that TV audiences crave a quality, borderline-R-rated fright.
But after the “American Horror Story” finale aired last December, something really weird happened: Executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk announced that Season 2 would be a complete reboot. The setting would change. The narrative would be new. And while some of the actors might return, the characters would be completely different.
The results of that Control-Alt-Delete experiment can be seen Wednesday night, when “American Horror Story: Asylum” debuts on FX. Call it a miniseries, which is how the first “American Horror Story” was described this year for Emmy consideration purposes, leading to 17 nominations. Call it an anthology show, as Murphy — also co-creator of “Glee” and “The New Normal” — has. Or call it what I’ve decided to call it: “American Horror Story: Nun.0.” All the updated labeling doesn’t change the fact that, two episodes in, this new “Horror Story” is nearly as depraved, unapologetically over the top and engrossing as the first season was.
As that “Nun.0” reference implies, the action has moved from a spookified L.A. Victorian into the unrelentingly bleak Briarcliff Manor, a Massachusetts mental hospital that’s run by the vicious Sister Jude (Lange, trading last season’s aging debutante up-do for a nun’s habit) and, of course, filled with secrets.
But wait. Time out. Before we delve into the sprawling “Asylum” narrative, we must first, as horror rules dictate, watch a hot couple knocking boots. That’s why the premiere opens with Leo (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan Tatum), a pair of newlyweds spending their honeymoon fornicating in the 12 most haunted places in America. We find them wandering the abandoned grounds of Briarcliff, getting super-handsy with each other and spitting out useful pieces of exposition.
“Built in 1908, Briarcliff Manor was once the largest tuberculosis ward on the East Coast. Forty-six thousand people died here,” Teresa notes. “You think it’s haunted?” Leo quips. Yes, Mr. “Moves Like Jagger.” You’ll soon know for sure that this place is haunted.
Then the flashback to 1964 begins and the core “American Horror Story: Asylum” tale takes over, introducing us to: Kit Walker (returning “AHS” star Evan Peters), who’s accused of being the uncreatively named serial killer Bloody Face but insists he’s innocent because, you know, extraterrestrials did it; Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, another “Horror Story” vet), a reporter attempting to investigate the asylum’s shady practices by pretending to write a feature story about its bakery (classic Woodward and Bernstein move); Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), the possibly evil medic whose commitment to science clashes with Sister Jude’s faith; Shelly the Nymphomaniac (Chloe Sevigny) who is exactly what her character’s name implies; and, of course, the aforementioned Sister Jude, who believes “mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin” yet also secretly wears racy negligees underneath those holy robes. It’s a lot to process.
For spoiler reasons, this reviewer is loath to say much more about what transpires in the first two “Asylum” episodes. Many of the themes threaded through the last season — men’s disrespect of women, kinky sex, sugary-sweet oldies tunes that foreshadow violent acts — also return in full force, as does Lange’s capacity to elevate cheesy dialogue to an over-enunciated art form.
“Let me give you fair warning,” she tells Cromwell at one point, “I’ll always win against a patriarchal male.” The way Lange lets her tongue slither on “male” is laughably excessive, but also just enough to make women across America want to start a slow-clap standing ovation in her honor. The Emmy winner is not the whole show. But at times, she’s close.
By shifting “American Horror Story” to a new place and time, its writers are clearly telling us that history and its monstrosities often repeat themselves. Darkness lurks within every man and woman, whether they reside in a Gothic home in 2011 that has a beastly baby in the basement or a ’60s-era mental hospital where all those crosses on the wall seemingly bring little salvation. “American Horror Story,” in its original and “Asylum” format, is a reminder that people have always and will always do bad things to one another. And we — the sick-in-the-head, twisted basic-cable voyeurs — will always want to sit back and watch.
(1 hour) airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX. Read recaps and analysis of each episode all season-long at washingtonpost.com/celebritology.