American Horror Story Returns (and brings “Horror Anthology” back to TV with it)

As time marches on, certain films, television shows, bands, books, etc. get forgotten. It’s just a natural part of the passing of time.  Some television series get remembered as classics but even then, their place in the cultural memory dwindles.  One of these shows which many know only in name but some still adore with fervor is Rod Serling’s classic anthology series, The Twilight Zone.  

Certain iconic images from the show are still around today: Serling’s mid episode appearances, imagery from the opening theme and Disney World’s “Tower of Terror” to name a few.  Beyond that, the show lives on during its yearly New Year’s Eve marathon on the SyFy network and numerous parodies on shows like  The Simpsons (many Treehouse of Horror segments are direct parodies of Twilight Zone episodes),   Family Guy, and Futurama (The Scary Door!).  Hopefully, the show never falls completely from our cultural memory as it’s shockingly good, even today.  Rod Serling’s writing is constantly mind bending and heartfelt, the show (which ran from 1959-1964) has a knack for fun makeup and effects which are outdated but better than one might expect.  You can catch glimpses of old celebrities (Burgess Meredith, Charles Bronson and William Shatner to name a few) and iconic moments that you didn’t even realize came from the show.  Serling was extremely progressive and tackled controversial issues like racism and social ills and he always used sci-fi and horror in unexpected ways.  One of the show’s hallmarks was that every episode was a brand new story with a brand new cast.  Serling wrote most of the episodes and would sometimes bring on guest writers, and because each episode was so different the show has endless rewatch value because the original run contains 156 unique stories.   This anthology style allowed for stories with beginnings, middles, and ends would be utilized in other sci-fi and horror shows like The Outer Limits, Tales From the Crypt,  Don’t be Afraid of the Dark and even later attempts to revive The Twilight Zone. Why this long rant about one of the best shows in television history?  Because last year, after  Fx’s American Horror Story  finished its dynamite first season and established  itself as one of the year’s best new shows, the creators announced that the second season, while retaining some of the actors in new roles, would feature a new cast, new setting and brand new story.  Each season would be a brand new self-contained story, and with that the anthology came back to television.

I’ll be writing weekly reviews/recaps of the second season but for this week I want to delve into the season long anthology experiment and its unique place in the current TV landscape.  I really enjoyed the season 2 premiere of the show (which is now titled: American Horror Story: Asylum) but I did find myself missing last year’s cast of characters.  Season 1 focused on the Harmons, a damaged family who moved out to California to try and move on from all the domestic chaos that had plagued them in Boston.  They find a gorgeous house from the early 1900s and the price is too good to be true.  The realtor tells them it’s because the previous owners, a gay couple, died in a murder/suicide.  Creepy, but not a deal breaker for the Harmons.  It turns out the house’s history is far deeper than that and the season that follows is a rip roaring haunted house tale full of rich back story, insane, well drawn characters, creepy imagery, great suspense and unexpected turns.  Because the season is a self contained story, the writers pulled no punches and any character was fair game.  Jessica Lange won an Emmy for her turn as the Harmons’ batty, manipulative neighbor Constance, whose history with the house is more complicated than she’d let on but there were great performances all around.  The Harmons (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and impressive Taissa Farmiga) aren’t back in new roles (yet) but Lange is, along with Evan Peters, who was a Season 1 standout as Constance’s disturbed son, Tate.  He owned much of last season with some breathtaking scenes.  Also returning is Zachary Quinto who had a recurring role in Season 1 as one of the house’s previous owners and a few other minor players.

I mentioned one of the benefits of making an anthology in my previous paragraph.  Because the writers are working  in the confines of one season they are less beholden to standard television rules.  A main character isn’t guaranteed survival because the story is over at the end of the season and the show doesn’t need to concern itself with maintaining a single star’s presence throughout the show’s run.  This advantage is further bolstered by the show’s horror genre influence. In season 1, characters were killed off in the blink of an eye and the writers always had the ability to bring them back as ghosts, bad dreams or any other creepy plot point the show required.  It also allows the show to, ideally, stay fresh.  It’s harder to beat a dead horse when you’re starting over from scratch at the with each new season.  Sure, even my beloved Rod Serling would touch on similar themes throughout his show’s run but an anthology presents a buffet of different tales rather than a set menu.

Sci-fi and horror are a great fit for this format because of their over-the-top nature and the latter’s reliance on suspense.  Something only remains scary as long as you keep it unknown.  Eventually things have to be revealed and it would be easy for a show, especially a show predicated on fear, to lose steam after showing its cards- but AHS has the advantage of emptying its bag of tricks throughout the course of a season and then grabbing a new bag when it’s all over.  Assuming the quality stays high (and the premiere indicated it very well could), AHS will be able to optimize its storytelling and creepiness each season.  This is great because one of the show’s strengths is its understanding of the different kinds of horror.  There is the Ti West “walk around a house for most of the movie ratcheting up tension until something terrifying happens” kind of fear which relies on suspense.  There is psychological terror (a scene in the premiere, “Welcome to Briarcliff”, where Lange’s sinister Sister Jude manipulates a reporter into being trapped in the asylum is an upsetting example of this), creepy imagery (the many inmates) and good old fashion jump scares.  The show has to balance these elements and that becomes much easier when taken one season at a time.

So by now you can tell I love the decision to become an anthology so let’s dive into the actual show.  Perhaps the most notable downside to the anthology element of the series is the loss of great characters.  Leaving aside the array of creepy and colorful ancillary characters populating the first season, I found myself wanting to know what was up with the Harmons and their evil domicile.  Taissa Farmiga was a revelation last season, carrying a really difficult role and McDermott and Britton’s relationship was really well written.  Oh well, at least Tate is back , this time as progressive mechanic Kit Walker who had the audacity to marry a black woman in 1964.  After some “hey audience, something is about to go wrong” sex, Kit and his wife are seemingly abducted by aliens.  The scene comes out of the blue and is effectively unnerving.  The visual effects were also pretty damn cool and just a little bit hokey (which fit nicely with the 60’s UFO aesthetic).  Before that we’re treated to a modern day couple,  Adam Levine and his kinky new bride, taking a “honeymoon horror tour” of an abandoned asylum called Briarcliff.  We’re informed that 46,000 people died within these walls and they say that once you enter you never get out.  It even hosted the famous serial killer, Bloody Face, a man who had the misfortune of killing at a time when his local newspaper writers lacked creativity.   The insidious reputation of Briarcliff proves all too true when Levine’s arm is ripped off and his wife runs off for help has he bleeds out.  Back in 1964  Lana, an intrepid reporter played by Sarah Paulson, is trying to scam her way into an interview with Bloody Face  (who is revealed to be none other than post-abduction Kit, now suspected of killing and skinning his wife) by tricking the manipulative, domineering head of Briarcliff, Sister Jude (Lange).  Lange rips through this episode like a hurricane showing moments of vulnerability (during a day dream sequence involving a red negligee and some old lady thighs), brutality (she traps Lana in the asylum during a really upsetting sequence in which she bullies her lesbian girlfriend into signing away Lana’s rights) and savvy (her suspicions of the over the top mad scientist, Dr. Arden).  Her character isn’t likeable but something more insidious than her is lurking beneath the surface and her determination to find it should help expand her role throughout the season.

I won’t do a blow by blow recap but the episode was highlighted by some disturbing imagery, atmospheric creepiness and some hamfisted weirdness.  The show isn’t ashamed of its genre and delves into some bizarre, circus-like territory and while that might turn some off, it’s a hallmark of the show I’ve always enjoyed.  It never lets itself get too deadly serious but even its flourishes of levity come in the form of discovering that a horrifying looking patient with a childlike demeanor “drowned her sisters baby and sliced off its ears.”  This is what passes for a joke on AHS, and it sort of works.  The show has to walk a fine line with its asylum setting.  An old sanitarium comes with a lot of horror movie cliches and (as I mentioned in The Waiver Wire’s TV/Movie Podcast, “Short Commercial Break“)  much of this season’s successes and failures will be based on how well it plays off of these cliches.  If the show can twist our expectations (e.g. the “nice” and seemingly “sane” inmate, Grace, will probably be the craziest of them all) in interesting ways, FX could have another gem on its hands.  Here are my biggest questions going forward:

  • Is Kit’s alien abduction story true?  The audience got several glimpses of the abduction and alien testing, and the doctor clearly discovered something abnormal at the end of episode, but it’s certainly possible he’s crazy.  After all, in the end of the episode we see Bloody Face, now living up to his name, haunting modern day Briarcliff.  Did Briarcliff make him that way or is there something more going on with this character and Evan Peters’ brand spanking new Boston accent?
  • Will we continue to see the time jumping from the first episode?  Are The Lovers going to be regular characters trying to navigate Briarcliff in the year 2012 or did Bloody Face make quick work of the wife while Adam Levine’s blood drained out and he thought about all the Maroon 5 records he’d never get to make?
  • Is there any hope for Lana to escape?  Sister Jude has legal status over her and is intent upon “curing” her homosexuality and there is no one coming to help.  This story line really got under my skin, it’s such a frightening concept and it gives the audience something root for.  Can Lana escape?  Briarcliff’s reputation says no.
  • Will the show make any nods to its previous season?  The actors’ former characters do inform the new ones in fun ways (it’s hard to watch Evan Peters and consider him sane after Season 1) but this is very much a self contained story.  Rumors of a role for Dylan McDermot have me excited that we’ll get little reminders of the stellar first season.
  • Who’s the first major character to die?  Season 1 wasn’t afraid of killing people so I imagine we’re in for more of the same.  Who’s first?  Judging by the premiere, it might better for the residents of Briarcliff to be on the top of that list.

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