The second season of “American Horror Story” did what every good television show is supposed to do—builds on the first season’s strengths, and improves upon its weaknesses. The show is still a crazed, schizophrenic nightmare of terror and evil, but this time it comes with at least a little bit of heart and a tiny bit—a tiny bit—more coherence.
The story begins in the 1960s in Massachusetts, near Boston. A reporter, Lana Winters, goes to investigate an asylum known as Briarcliff, which is known as a horrible place with controversial practices. At the same time, a young man named Kit Walker is wrongfully convicted of crimes he did not commit after his African American wife is abducted by unknown creatures. In the end, both Lana and Kit are sentenced to time at Briarcliff, where they meet other tragic characters and attempt many escapes.
The first season was characterized by a no-holds-bar approach, with everything and the kitchen sink thrown into the mixer and blended together. This mixture sometimes resulted in ridiculous and farcical moments; other times, it didn’t work at all. The first season had stretches of nothingness, and the ending—which spanned two episodes—went on for an episode-and-a-half too long, and felt like they added the extra episode just for yucks.
Not so much with this second season. The story is more together, still retaining its over-the-top, crazed quality. Aliens, murderers, movies, interracial marriages, homosexuality, deformities, Nazis, religious zealots—everything is there. But this time, it fits better, because of one very crucial element.
We actually care for some of the characters this time.
The first season suffered not from having so many characters, but from having so many characters that were not likable in the least. The central family was made up of mostly petty, arrogant, self-centered people who didn’t go through any sort of a character arc. This second season—which finds many of the same actors playing different roles, which brings up a lot of interesting questions—has some characters that you have to root for. They don’t go through their actions in self-centered angst; they act with heart, and compassion, and justice (even though some of it may be misplaced). We root for Kit Walker to escape and find his wife; we are cheering for Lana to find the true serial killer; and, amazingly, we have to shed a tear when the head medical doctor, Dr. Arden, who has been nothing but evil, finally shows a bit of humanity.
The performances are all top-notch. The first season had incredible actors who did nothing else really but shouting at each other. This season has its share of quiet moments—the minimum number, but it has them. All of the actors—from Jessica Lange to James Cromwell to Zachary Quinto—show fully-functional characters with a three-dimensional emotional range. Expect some awards in the future.
The technical achievements of the season are higher than the first, as can be expected. The camerawork is good, albeit with some odd angles (such as in the last episode’s twisting, upside-down camera) that makes your head spin and involuntarily tilt.
The only possible downside, still, is that the story might to a bit too convoluted and crazed for some. If it wasn’t played straight, this would become a comedy with almost very little change—some parts of it do induce a laugh or two, and that’s what Ryan Murphy (“Glee”, “Nip/Tuck”) is known for: pulling out all the stops to get whatever prizes he can. Thankfully, though, he has achieved a better result than the story for last season; every time I dread it would go in a wrong direction, it didn’t (such as when everyone left the asylum two episodes from the end, and I was worried that now it would just be a series of epilogue-like wanderings of nothingness). And the last episode—the finale—actually felt like a finale, packing a wallop of both an emotional punch and a sure-fire twist.
In the end, “American Horror Story: Asylum” is a thrill-ride that justifies its existence ten-times over. For those who like a good old-fashioned horror story, they will find something in it they like; for those who like good television, chew on this. And it only makes me wonder, with faith in the creators now, what could possibly be coming out for the third season.