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TV Tonight: American Horror Story: Asylum

Set in a 1960s sanitarium for the criminally insane, AHS's second season begins as a more focused, if equally frenetic, screamfest.

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Frank Ockenfels / FX

I cannot tell you that I liked the first season of American Horror Story. The FX haunted-house drama was too provocative, febrile and manic to be aiming at tepid reactions such as “like.” You don’t “like” a rollercoaster, or a car crash, and AHS was both in turns.

I loved its image-drunk freakiness: the rubber man, the old/young ghost housekeeper, the decadent, overripe ’70s-horror-flick vibe of it all. I sometimes laughed at its theatrics, like Dylan McDermott’s tortured masturbation-weeping. I was moved by the backstories of its lonely, damned ghosts and puzzled by its lack of focus on the relationships of the living couple at its center.

But I was never bored. I could not defend the show as entirely “good” by the usual metrics of consistent character and storytelling. But by the illogical, primal metrics of horror-story-telling, I enjoyed its cuckoo chaos more than most things I watched in 2011.

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AHS is back tonight, and in keeping with its mandate of boredom-avoidance, it has entirely new characters, a new setting and a new story. (Though several cast members have been kept around, like a psycho-freaky repertory company.) American Horror Story: Asylum haunts Briarcliff, a Catholic institution for the criminally insane in the early 1960s, run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who speaks scarily and carries a big cane.

Among Briarcliff’s residents is Kit (Evan Paters, stellar as a tortured teen killer in season one), who may be wrongly imprisoned or may be the serial killer Bloody Face. A reporter (Sarah Paulson) is looking to epose the twisted goings-on in Sister Jude’s repressive, repressed domain. The setup again is a Dagwood sandwich of horror tropes, but with different ingredients: naughty nuns, vivisection, exorcism and, I kid you not, aliens. Out: latex; in: crucifixes.

The result, in the first two episodes sent out, is an AHS even nuttier and creepier than the first season began–and yet, in a strange way, more internally consistent. Season one tried to marry domestic-drama naturalism with damnation-drama supernaturalism. Season two just wants to scare the crap out of you, with enough trappings of Catholic shock-depravity to fill a Lady Gaga video. (Organizations that protest negative portrayals of the Church: you may as well go ahead and hire new staff to handle this one for the next three months or so.)

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So far it works. Not, as if you would expect otherwise, flawlessly. Lange, who played a fading Southern magnolia in season one, now has an accent that’s meant to reside in New England but takes several flights down the Eastern seaboard. Chloe Sevigny—part of an impressive that also includes Joseph Fiennes and James Cromwell—plays a so-far frustratingly one-note role as a diagnosed nymphomaniac. AHS: Asylum has a lot to say about misogyny and a society that pathologizes sexuality, but it would be easier to make the case with a character who doesn’t define herself almost entirely in terms of sex.

But as a whole—if you take it on its macabre, kinky terms—the beginning of AHS: Asylum feels like a more focused, if equally frenetic, screamfest. It’s also gorgeously realized, with a vision of its ’60s institution setting so detailed you can smell the stale air and incense. (A flash-forward to the present, including of all people Maroon 5′s Adam Levine, is less well-integrated so far.)

The first season of AHS in its own way wanted to be a period piece, with its mash notes to Rosemary’s Baby and the like. Asylum feels like a more direct and all-out version of the show season one wanted to be. And it seems like, with its horror-anthology format, AHS is the perfect corrective to the weakness of co-creator Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck)—his habit of getting tired with his shows and rebooting them constantly. Here, the reboot—and psychoeroticism, and insanity—is built into the recipe. I doubt Murphy will be bored with this show any time soon. Neither, thankfully, am I.

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