Last night was the second season premiere of FX's grim, gunky, 'n' glorious American Horror Story, a show so shamelessly filthy and melodramatic that it's almost heartwarming. Last season's gnarly tale involved a troubled family who moved into an even more troubled house, one haunted by dead babies and murdered women and a ghostly sex sadist in a black latex body suit. Despite all that lurid phantasmagoria, there were a few wisps or tinges of genuine emotion wafting throughout the punishing twelve-episode run, just enough to keep the show from sinking completely into pulverizing nihilism. This season, though? Well, based on last night's episode, it seems like we're mostly dealing with gore and ghoulishness.
The episode opened in appropriately terrifying manner, meaning one of the first people we saw was Maroon 5 singer and The Voice mentor Adam Levine, as unsettlingly creepy a pop singer as you can find these days. He and his pretend wife, Jenna Dewan, were in the middle of a weird honeymoon, visiting America's twelve or so most-haunted places. (Presumably they'd been or were planning on going to the first season's Murder House?) They'd just arrived at the crumbling ruins of Briarcliff Manor, a TB hospital turned mental facility where clearly some gruesome things had gone down. The two young lovers goofed around, made sexy eyes at each other, and then made actual sex on some sort of operating table. (An unpleasant visual that included Levine spitting on his hand and, well, y'know.) What could possibly go wrong?? Well, Levine stuck his arm in the wrong cell door food slot and, oops, the darn thing got ripped off by some sort of barely glimpsed monster creature. Cue screaming, cue shaky credits, and then after all that, we're transported back to1964.
That'll be the main time period for this season, it seems. It's 1964 in rural-ish Massachusetts and Evan Peters, who played the spooky teen on the last go-around, is a slightly pompadoured gas station attendant named Kit who, like the doomed couple in the beginning, is also a newlywed. Only his marriage is a secret, as he's married to a black girl and that kind of thing didn't fly too well back then in that place. The couple has sex, she starts making him dinner, and then there's a rumble and a bright light and suddenly it seems like, oh god, this season is going to be about aliens. Yes there's the trademark weird magnetic stuff that we've seen in other abduction scenes, like on The X-Files (an obvious inspiration here), and then a spindly hand comes out of the light and grabs at Kit. Then, just as suddenly, we're back at Briarcliff, now a bustling home for the criminally insane. A reporter named Lana (returning company member Sarah Paulson) has arrived at the institution in the hopes of writing some kind of exposé about the place, but is thwarted by the stern head nun Sister Jude, played with breathy but menacing authority by the indispensable Jessica Lange. Sister Jude's got a whimpering handmaiden in Lily Rabe's Sister Mary Eunice, a crush object in Joseph Fiennes' ambitious Monsignor Timothy Howard, and James Cromwell's Dr. Aden as a creepy nemesis. Everyone has hidden agendas, none of which seem good.
The bulk of the episode was spent getting the lay of the land in the asylum, which proved to be a respectably awful and despairing place. There are strange creatures lurking in the nearby woods whom Mary Eunice seems to be feeding. Chloe Sevigny slinks by as a nymphomaniac patient named Shelley. Kelly Ripa's husband Mark Consuelos, of all people, plays a rough guy named Spivey. And, wouldn't you know it, there's Kit being dragged in, accused of being the local serial killer, Bloody Face. (He wears other people's faces, like in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) It seems Kit's wife was the last of three grisly deaths that he's being blamed for, but of course he didn't actually do it. It was the aliens! (Or so we're led to believe so far.) Lana eventually becomes tangled up in this mess, getting herself institutionalized after Sister Jude sniffs out her nosy intentions and threatens her lesbian lover (Clea DuVall) with exposure unless she signs Lana over to the hospital. Dr. Aden is doing bad brain experiments in the basement, Monsignor clearly has not-so-wholesome goals in mind, and Kit has some kind of Transformers microchip in his neck (just like Agent Scully!) that, when removed, turns into an electronic bug and skitters away. So basically everything that could possibly be happening is happening in this mental hospital, and the work of the season will be sorting it all out.
I'd say I'm excited to do that. I'm really not pleased about this aliens business, though. Only rarely do sci-fi and horror mix well, and while The X-Files certainly had its moments, it was more jangly and paranoid than it was ever really scary. I just don't find strange extraterrestrial technology all that viscerally frightening. I prefer all the twisted folklore and terrestrially supernatural stuff that this series mainly traffics in, and of which there is certainly plenty this season. Though I don't love his plotline so far, it must be said that Mr. Peters, sporting the best of the show's mixed bag of Boston accents, ain't too hard on the eyes and is admirably doing a completely different character from last season's, indicating to me that he's at least got some range as an actor. But yes, mostly, his floppy blond looks combined with that I'm-home-again accent means I'm sold. I suspect co-creator Ryan Murphy was too. Lange's accent is shaky, but that doesn't really matter. She knows just how to sell a kitchen sink role like this, no matter how she sounds, and is well-matched by the burgeoning theater diva Lily Rabe, whose whimpers elicit mostly pity but also a curious hint of revulsion and goosebumps. She's up to something, clearly, and I'm perhaps most curious to find out what. (My theory so far: She's secretly Lange's daughter.)
This is already a busy, busy story and I do worry that it will topple over if they try to stack up too much more, but that sense of wild, precarious abandon is what makes this show such a grimy pleasure. It's got a spirit of derring-do that I initially, last season, wrote off as cynical gilding the lily. But I think there's something a tad smarter at work here — all the derivate stuff (someone got semen thrown in their face by an inmate, in a scene straight out of Silence of the Lambs) is deliberately unapologetic about its derivativeness. Think of it as the grand, manic finale to Cabin in the Woods. You want horror? Here's horror, and not just some horror, pretty much all the horror. Last season was ghosts and spectres and bumps in the night. Our villains this time are a bit more tangible, minus the aliens. Because of this season's larger sprawl, I doubt we'll get to feel the same satisfying sense of tingly claustrophobia that we felt last year, even though the hospital is full of dark corners and tiny cells, but that's probably OK. I'm not ruling out the possibility that American Horror Story: Asylum will be a sloppy, garish mess. (The presence of a character named Pepper who has microcephaly and is styled in an homage to 1932's exploitative horror movie Freaks suggests that Murphy is up to his old backhanded other-celebrating/other-shaming ways, which I hope there isn't too much more of.) But I've enough faith in the show based on the first season that there is some warped method working underneath all this madness. There's no doubt I'll watch 'til the end, it's just a matter of liking the final pattern that all the splatters make.
Sadly, though, something even scarier than forced institutionalization happened to an AHS company player last night. Connie Britton's Nashville, airing on ABC at the same time, dropped an unsettling 29 percent in its second week. That's not good news for this likable country soap. Yeesh, and Britton thought Murder House was bad.