Rather than having a continuing story, American Horror Story has decided to go the more interesting route of telling a completely different tale each season, although with many of the same actors (but playing new character). So while the first season was set in a haunted house in LA, Asylum takes us to the Briarcliff asylum.
We start out in the present day, when a man (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and his girlfriend are poking around the ruins of Briarcliff when they are confronted by an incarnation of the psychotic serial killer, Bloodyface. We then flash back to the 1960s, when Briarcliff in still in operation, presided over by the terrifying nun, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange).
Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is brought in, charged with being Bloodyface, although he maintains he never killed the women he’s said to have brutally murdered and that his predicament could be due to alien abduction. As he enters the asylum’s world, we begin to learn that this is a very strange place. There are what seem to be creatures in the grounds, a doctor with an evil past (James Cromwell) conducting terrible experiments on the patients, people locked away never to be seen again, and a black angel who turns up on the point of death. And that’s not to mention that something evil seems to be possessing people.
There’s also journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who’s determined to uncover the mistreatment at Briarcliff. She ends up getting herself admitted so that she can get an inside view. However this turns out to be very dangerous, as those running the asylum have a lot to lose, which may mean they’ll want to ensure she never leaves. It doesn’t help that Lana is a lesbian, something that in the 1960s is treated as a mental illness and therefore a reason to allow them to keep her under lock and key. The only sane person seems to be psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), but things aren’t as they appear.
American Horror Story: Asylum is pretty insane, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The first season of American Horror Story stuck pretty close to haunted house and ghost tropes, while tweaking things a little. Asylum however is determined to squeeze in every type of horror tale imaginable, from aliens and evil Nazis, to serial killers, deformed creatures and demons. There’s nothing it doesn’t have a go at, covering a multitude of plots and ideas from across the horror spectrum.
It allows for some audacious moments when these subgenres are thrown up against one another, but with only 13 episodes, there simply isn’t the time to do justice to them at all. Some stories are simply forgotten, others seems to have been added in randomly for no real reason as they go nowhere, while others feel like they were meant to be much more than they ended up as. It’s a little frustrating as Asylum introduces mysteries you’ll want to know the answer to, but many are left hanging because it’s impossible to properly deal with them all.
However, the boldness also means it’s constantly surprising and goes to places you never thought it would. It allows for some incredible and shocking moments, and flashes of superb and pretty creepy television. There’s a massive amount of imagination of show, even if there’s not quite enough time to let it all shine. It’s not even like they’ll be able to explain more in the next season, as this is our only visit to Briarcliff.
Its shove-it-all-in-there mentality also allows for some incredible ‘WTF?’ moments, perhaps most notably when the show suddenly breaks into a song-and-dance number to Shirley Ellis’ The Name Game. It’s both amazing and bizarre, but oddly fitting for a show that’s not just about the insane, but is a little bit mad itself. And even at its most nuts, it’ll still keep you hooked.
Overall Verdict: There may be about a dozen too many plots for 13 episodes to handle, but American Horror Story: Asylum is still great TV, which constantly surprises and shocks. It’s just a shame some interesting stories never really go anywhere.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac