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‘American Horror Story’ 2.01 Recap: “All Monsters Are Human”

I think I made clear last year that ‘American Horror Story’ was my favorite new show of 2011. Yet I still find myself approaching the second season with trepidation for a couple of reasons. First, a concept like this doesn’t lend itself to being drawn out for a long time. Perhaps more troubling, creator Ryan Murphy has an unfortunate track record of flash-in-the-pan series that flame out early. Is that destined to happen again, or can this horror story sustain itself for at least another season?

It’s too soon to tell. Last week’s premiere episode makes some very smart decisions, but ultimately hasn’t excited me the way that the first season did.

First off, the second season is a completely independent storyline (a “reboot,” I suppose) that drops just about everything from Season 1 except the opening theme music. While some of the cast have returned, they play new characters in a different setting. The season even goes by the modified name ‘American Horry Story: Asylum’. Effectively, the series is an anthology that will tell a new story each season.

Episode ‘Welcome to Briarcliff’ opens in the present day, where a couple of douchebag newlyweds break into an old, abandoned mental institution as the latest leg on their “Haunted Honeymoon Tour.” Pop star and ‘The Voice’ judge Adam Levine is kind of annoying in his first attempt to act, but he’s barely on screen for a few minutes before something creepy tears his arm off.

Next, we flash back to 1964. Former tuberculosis clinic Briarcliff now functions as an asylum for the mentally ill and criminally insane. The place is run by stern nun Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). Also returning from Season 1 is Evan Peters (who formerly played the deranged Tate) as gas station attendant Kit Walker, who’s been accused of being a demented serial killer called “Bloody Face.” Kit asserts that he’s innocent, and that he was abducted and probed by aliens that flayed his pretty young wife. Of course, the more he tells this story, the crazier he seems.

Sarah Paulson, who had a small part in the first season, takes a more prominent role as a nosy reporter looking to break the story of what really goes on inside a nut house. After she gets caught snooping and is attacked by… something, Sister Jude has her involuntarily committed to the institution in order to “cure” her lesbianism.

New to the cast this year are James Cromwell as a mad doctor who experiments on the inmates, Joseph Fiennes as the power-hungry monsignor that Sister Jude reports to (and has sexual fantasies about), Chloe Sevigny as a nymphomaniac patient, and Clea DuVall as Paulson’s fretting girlfriend.

Just like the first season, ‘Asylum’ is a pastiche of many familiar genre touchstones. In addition to the obvious haunted asylum references (which is a whole sub-genre unto itself), the premiere blends bits and pieces of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’, ‘Fire in the Sky’ and many others into a delirious stew of homages and clichés, all cranked up to 11.

I think that the anthology format is a pretty clever solution for the problem of how to keep the material fresh, and I also like the idea that the series has a repertory cast of players who will take on new roles as the stories require. I find it interesting how different Jessica Lange’s new character is from the one she played in the first season. That’s a neat twist. On the other hand, something in the premiere didn’t click with me. It almost seems to be trying too hard. I’m not disappointed with it, exactly, but it left me a little cold. I felt surprisingly indifferent toward it by the end.

Regardless, I’m still onboard. Maybe it will pick up in the next episode or so.

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