“American Horror Story: Asylum” (9 p.m. Central Wednesdays on FX) departs from the first season’s present-day haunted house and visits an insane asylum in 1964. The setting is evocative and different enough that this is clearly a new world — there’s no need to think back on the pretty-good-then-pretty-bad first season (some actors are the same, but none of the characters are). But at the same time, “Asylum” is undeniably a Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk production, so we get more showy visuals and quick, arty cutaways than engaging characterizations or intriguing mysteries.
Evan Peters’ Kit is the closest thing to a likable hero in “Asylum.” He’s wrongly admitted to the church-run asylum for the murders of several women, including his wife, although in actuality aliens did it, and he was briefly abducted and probed. The visuals of the abduction are effectively raw and disturbing, but also too familiar and cliched; the same problem arises with the exorcism of a boy who is admitted to the asylum in episode two. Sure, “Asylum” might push the envelope of what we see on cable TV, but it’s nothing new to people familiar with horror movie tropes.
That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. Horror movies and shows don’t have to be totally groundbreaking, but to be effective, they shouldn’t be this familiar, either. The titular building looks dank and filthy and foreboding, but the camera doesn’t dwell on anything long enough to let a viewer soak it all in. In a similar vein, the actors are good but the character arcs are one-note and obvious, from alien abductee Kit and the possessed kid to Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude (she accidentally ran someone over in her car as a wild youth) to James Cromwell’s mad Dr. Arden (he has a predisposition to weird sex and experiments on patients’ brains to understand his own quirks) to Chloe Sevigny’s Shelley (she’s a sex addict) to Lizzie Brochere’s Grace (she supposedly murdered her whole family, although — like Kit — she’s probably innocent) to Sarah Paulson’s Lana (she’s gay).
Lana is a journalist investigating the asylum, so it appears early on that she’ll be our main character. But then she’s captured by that very facility (for being gay; remember, this is 1964), receives electro-shock treatment and rats out two fellow inmates during a breakout attempt. As a viewer, I don’t like her, yet she’s still the best chance that “Asylum” will have a protagonist and something to say beyond “People and society are weird and cruel” (a second possibility is Zachary Quinto’s investigator, who is assigned to determine Kit’s sanity level).
The dark side of humanity isn’t a bad theme at all, but “Asylum” is so structurally scattered that each episode feels like a dose of electro-shock treatment itself. Although I’m a fan of the writers of the first two episodes, Tim Minear (“Angel”) and James Wong (“Millennium”), I’m a bit worried that “Asylum” will be more of a playground for horror writers than a coherent narrative. Murphy and Falchuk are not interested in plot at all after two episodes, the show takes a rote approach to characterization, and it mainly wants to draw viewers back by being visually weird and disturbing every week. I might come back for another episode or two to see if more of a focus emerges, but that’s probably wishful thinking based on these producers’ careers to date and the way Season 1 spiraled into silliness.
What are your thoughts on the first episode of “American Horror Story: Asylum?” Comment below.