Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about the whole Murphy/Falchuk oeuvre. Loved “Glee” for a while before losing interest, thought “Nip/Tuck” became too silly, can’t stand “The New Normal.” But I’ve got to say, one thing these guys pulled off that will always impress me is the game-changing idea of rebooting “American Horror Story” (second season premiere Wed. Oct. 17 at 10 p.m.) at the end of its first season. It’s a move that could only happen on cable (or maybe the Internet, if you want to include Web series), but there are plenty of shows I wish had made the same decision. If this is ultimately the only lasting impact (and I hope it’s lasting) the show has on the television landscape, I’ll gladly call it an epic win. Whether or not the reboot is a success on its own terms, of course, remains to be seen.
Recap: ‘American Horror Story’ serves a mash-up of horror’s greatest hits
Like last season, Murphy and Falchuk are throwing all the spaghetti they can find frantically at the wall, and I can see both sides of the love it/hate it debate. To me, the fun (if it’s fair to call anything about a creepfest like “American Horror Story” fun) of the second season of the show may simply be in catching the references, many of them to horror movies and books, though not all. A character with microcephaly? Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” A sadistic mad scientist? A stock character in tons of movies ranging from “Dead Ringers” to “Frankenstein,” but in this case I’m thinking George Hodel, suspected by some (including his own son) in the Black Dahlia murder. A lightning-fast play on the “Psycho” shower scene. An opening credit sequence that could be a David Fincher-directed “Nine Inch Nails” video. “The Exorcist” (that really kicks in next week), “Fire in the Sky,” “The Devils,” “The Children’s Hour,” every teen-centric horror movie of the 1980s — the list goes on. While often these elements seem cobbled together and not always well or logically, there’s a consistently knowing wink at the audience. The expectation is that whoever is watching this show loves horror as much as the creators do, and mash-ups should be as welcome as they are on “Glee,” though of a somewhat different variety.
We kick things off in modern times with Adam Levine (yes, Maroon 5/”The Voice” Adam Levine). He’s shutterbug Leo to stock hot chick Teresa (Jenna Dewan Tatum), and they’re merrily prowling around an old, abandoned insane asylum as we scream for them to exercise a little damn caution. For them, peeling paint and spooky shadows are a turn-on, and though they’re grown-ups and married, they’re basically acting out every scary movie featuring horny teenagers you’ve ever seen. As expected, there’s sex, there are scares, and Levine seems to be on board to play the Drew Barrymore character in “Scream,” which hasn’t been a shocker since, well, “Scream.” Leo doesn’t die, but he loses an arm, leaving Teresa to scamper around the asylum looking terrified and sexy at the same time. It doesn’t matter if this is a retread idea, though, because these two are just setting up the real action, which goes back to the heyday of the asylum, if you can call locking up the infirm, unlucky and plumb crazy together a heyday. The way the show cuts back and forth between past and present features some clever editing, which makes the jolt of jumping between two different storylines more creative than it might otherwise be.
Jessica Lange may have been lured to the small screen due to the show’s shorter seasons, but more than half of the appeal has to be the chance to sink her teeth into some characters that call on familiar archetypes and take them right to the edge of camp (and frequently beyond). This season, she is Sister Jude, who was the mother in charge of the insane asylum Briarcliff back when mental illness could still be considered a sin by the state. As a textured tyrant troubled by lust, an ugly past and the limitations of the very low glass ceiling of the Catholic Church circa 1964, Lange’s character (and her black little heart) certainly isn’t in the right place. Still, many of her frustrations could be those of any ambitious female protagonist in a modern-day series, only amplified. Her issues are echoed in Chloe Sevigny’s “nymphomaniac” character, whose real problems will eventually be spelled out (a little too emphatically, natch) to make it absolutely clear that 1964 was not the year of the woman.
Lange often refers rhapsodically to Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), and when we finally see them sharing dinner, coq au vin whipped up by a yearning Sister Jude, some of her adoration is given focus. She’s drawn to him not only because he’s handsome, but because he has the power she wishes she had but can never possess in her own right. She daydreams of him confessing he has his eye on the papal seat as she drops her habit and reveals her bright red underthings to him. That it’s only a daydream, and one that she realizes isn’t shared, causes her lips to pucker as if she’s sucked on a lemon instead of the bitter taste of her own thwarted aspirations.
Because this is a Ryan Murphy project, he makes sure LGBT issues play a role, and they fuel the storyline for returning “AHS” actress Sarah Paulson’s character, Lana Winters. A lesbian journalist relegated to the cooking section of the local paper but desperate for a crack at some real news, she wants to interview Sister Jude. No, really, it makes perfect sense, mostly. Ostensibly she’s interested in the asylum’s on-site bakery, but in reality she wants to get access to Bloody Face, the town’s vicious serial killer. Of course, we know that snooping around an insane asylum when you have a secret to hide (and, of course, so does your girlfriend) is asking for trouble, and she gets it. Boy howdy, does she, as Sister Jude blackmails her schoolteacher girlfriend into having Lana signed up for the nuthouse, where the good nun can control her, body and mind. Lana, so wrapped up in her dreams of a Pulitzer that such crass blowback isn’t even on her radar, is at first indignant, then horrified and ultimately forced to realize her fate is not her own. Add female prison movies to the list of homages.
Someone who gets it even worse than Lana is Bloody Face himself, who may actually be innocent of the horrible crimes of which he stands accused. When we’re introduced to Kit Walker (“AHS” returnee Evan Peters), he seems like a sweet, normal guy who just happened to marry an African-American chick, a big no-no back in the day. While it seems as if he’s destined to get roughed up by the local toughs, they don’t appear to have the skill set needed to suck a guy up to his ceiling and blind him with white light. All (or at least most) will be revealed in the second episode, but let’s just say “American Horror Story” is tossing another genre into the mix.
The most intriguing character, at least to me, is played by James Cromwell. As the resident mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden, he’s revealed as creepy straight off the jump — and his fascination with innocent (if simple minded) Sister Mary Eunice (“AHS” alumna Lily Rabe) gives us a hint of kink to come. While he initially just appears to be the scientific foil to Sister Jude’s faith, like her he has hidden depths and dark secrets. I can’t wait to see exactly what kind of weird, blood-thirsty creatures he’s cooked up in the lab and unleashed behind the asylum (he convinces poor Sister Mary Eunice feed the beasts), but I’m sure that will be revealed soon enough. Those monsters will undoubtedly give the show a chance to go in yet another direction. Really, if there’s any brand of horror movie that isn’t explored on the show this season, I’ll be surprised and just possibly disappointed. While I got frustrated with the first season, this time around I’m giving in to the gleeful (no pun intended) craziness of it all, at least for a while.
Sister Mary Eunice is perhaps the most innocent of the cast of characters. She flits around the asylum, fearful of Sister Jude’s wrath, not quite sure what to make of Dr. Arden and constantly worried she’s sinning somehow, someway. When she invites the ire of Sister Jude, she begs to be whipped, declaring that she’s stupid so ardently that even Sister Jude can’t bring herself to whip her, instead demanding she pull down her habit and stop yapping. Of course, there’s no way sweet Sister Mary Eunice can stay so pure while surrounded by madness, so I wouldn’t get too used to it.
It’s pretty clear that Murphy and Falchuk are going to concoct stories like film junkies on a sugar high yet again this season — crazy plot twists, characters and backstories, oh my. They may not all work, and I’m sure a lot of them will make viewers question how far their suspension of disbelief can stretch. But with such frantic windmilling taking place in the writers’ room, viewers just have to wait a few minutes before something else comes hurtling down the path. It may not all stick, but it’s hard to look away — even when, given the gore, you want to.