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TV Review | Humor, horror continue in season two of ‘American Horror Story’

Murphy’s insanity continues, now in psychiatric hospital

Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 08:11

Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” has gained a reputation for amping up the terror, laughs and thrills. Now in its second season, the show is back with still more hilarious insanity.

Aside from a few recurring actors and writers, this season of “American Horror Story” is completely self−contained and has so far made no reference to season one. Making each season independent gives the show a sort of bizarre structure and allows it plenty of room for experimentation. The format also enables “American Horror Story” to be more surprising and suspenseful than other shows. In other programs, the viewer knows that the main characters aren’t going to be in any real danger within the first few episodes of a season. With “American Horror Story’s” huge cast, however, anything could happen to anybody at any moment — and it often does.

This season, the horror stems from an unwholesome ’60s psychiatric hospital. Picture inpatients paired with Nazis, demon possessions, aliens and a brutal serial killer and you’ll start to understand the show’s craziness. This multitude of stock horror tropes all thrown together might sound overwhelming, but really, that’s the fun of the show.

The program packs every episode with plenty of campiness and jump−in−your−seat scares. Scene to scene, the show morphs between countless different horror aesthetics and tropes, keeping fascinated — if confused — viewers glued to the screen. In the season premiere, the show first takes the form of a slasher film when Bloody Face, a serial killer who scalps his victims then wears their faces, terrorizes and disembodies a young married couple. A few minutes later, it pays homage to “The Exorcist” (1973) when a group of priests try to save a disturbed young boy from the devil that possesses him. Not too long after, alien abduction and sinister medical experimentation joined the mix.

The show only manages to feel cohesive because of its incredibly talented cast. Emmy−winner Jessica Lange gives a stellar performance as Sister Jude, a nun in charge of the asylum. Lange plays a stern character, but she also masterfully balances hyperbole and vulnerability. She controls her wards with an iron−fist, but she also clearly cares about the asylum and her religious cause. Sister Jude also elicits viewers’ sympathy as she fights against the scorn she faces as a woman in power.

Proving that nothing is sacred to “American Horror Story’s” writers, Anne Frank (Franka Potente) made her season debut in last week’s episode. In the show’s alternate universe, Frank survived Auschwitz and is out to hurt Arden (James Cromwell), who, she remembers, used to torture and experiment on girls in the concentration camp. This arc epitomizes the show’s tone — it is bizarre, boundary−pushing and, yes, gripping.

“American Horror Story” also does an interesting, if sometimes flawed, job of incorporating social issues relevant to the time period. So far this season, “American Horror Story” has examined interracial relationships, homosexuality, sexual liberation and feminism. These issues give the show additional depth, are less heavy−handed than they could be and still permit shocks and gore to take center stage.

It’s exciting to think about how all these seemingly disparate plotlines will come together over the 13−episode season. So far, the audience has no idea how the alien abduction introduced in the first episode relates to the serial killer who has been on the loose for over 50 years, or how the devil possessing a nun to wreak havoc on the Catholics relates to the flesh−eating mutants living just outside the asylum. Whether these plotlines will all coalesce in the end or will just derail, “American Horror Story” is so enthralling in the moment that petty things like cohesion and logic just don’t matter.

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