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No asylum from fright in 'Horror'

Last modified: 10/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
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. Along with AMC's The Walking Dead, it 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 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.

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 says 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.


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