“American Horror Story” was not a show I enjoyed at all in its first season, but I couldn’t help admiring the decision its creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, made at the end of it. Having spent 13 episodes telling a story with a beginning, middle and end about a family who moves into a haunted house, dies, and becomes closer in death than they were in life, Murphy and Falchuk elected not to continue that story in the FX drama’s new season. Instead, “American Horror Story” (it returns tonight at 10) will be that rarest of 21st century TV creatures: an anthology drama. Each season will tell a complete story, then start over from scratch, perhaps bringing along some actors (Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Zachary Quinto, Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson all return from last year, among others) but in entirely new roles.
Too many TV shows keep going and going only because that’s the way the business model is set up, and not because there’s enough in the story to merit continuing. Murphy, Falchuk and FX figured out a way to use the “American Horror Story” name – which has value after the show was a big hit in its first season – without getting tied to any one story or set of characters. If you were a fan of the Harmon family or the murder house, you don’t have to fear that the show will make you sick of them. And if you didn’t enjoy the first season, perhaps the new one – with the official title “American Horror Story: Asylum,” set in a Catholic-run New England mental hospital in 1964 – will be more to your liking.
Then again, this is a Ryan Murphy show, which means a clean break from the old characters and setting, but not from how the stories are told.
Just as Murphy and Falchuk packed a bunch of diverse horror tropes into a single haunted house last year, the new season makes its insane asylum home to every malady, both natural and supernatural, that the writers can think of. It’s not just that the place houses an accused serial killer (Peters), that the head doctor (James Cromwell) is performing macabre experiments on the patients without their consent, nor that the head nun (Lange) rules the place with an iron fist – and a closet full of whipping implements. No, there are also characters talking about alien abduction and demonic possession. No stone can be left unturned, no cliché unexplored.
The setting provides a bit more narrative coherence than the haunted house did last year, but the problem with Murphy’s everything plus the kitchen sink storytelling approach is that it has the opposite effect from what’s intended. Rather than dazzling and shocking me with one disturbing twist after another, it desensitizes me. When you’re constantly being assaulted by explicit images, they collectively lose all meaning in a hurry – or, worse, become unintentionally funny. When the local monsignor (Joseph Fiennes) suggests a patient needs an exorcism, all you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Sure. Why not?”
As with Murphy’s new NBC sitcom “The New Normal” (and “Glee,” for that matter), there are ideas that are interesting in the abstract, like the combative relationship between Lange’s self-righteous Sister and Paulson’s lesbian reporter. And it’s easy to understand why so many good actors (Chloe Sevigny is another notable addition as a sexually adventurous woman labeled deviant) would want to be part of a show that gives them such intense material that welcomes scenery-chewing, even if it’s frequently half a step removed from torture porn. As a bitter nun with a working-class New England accent, Lange’s doing a 180 from her demented Southern belle season 1 role, and she’s excellent. But none of it means anything, because Murphy and Falchuk are too busy moving on to their next brainstorm.
Given the short attention span they’ve demonstrated on this show, on “Glee,” “Nip/Tuck,” etc., turning “American Horror Story” into a series of miniseries makes better use of Murphy and Falchuk’s skills and interests – but ultimately, it’s the exact same tedious show they’ve been making, under one name or another, for years now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org