Editor's Note: For a different take on American Horror Story: Asylum, see Ed Bark's Uncle Barky's Byte.
Despite what FX is calling it, or how the Emmy voters are judging it, American Horror Story is not a miniseries. Nor is it a repertory-company series. But it is fascinating…
I was thrilled by Season 1 of American Horror Story, which begins its new season Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET — by the writing, the casting, the performances, the audacity, the unpredictability, and the visual creepiness of it. As a horror series, it wasn’t as flat-out scary as AMC’s The Walking Dead, but what else in TV history has been?
But after the season finale, which featured the giddy cheekiness of having a Christmas episode and kill-all-the-major-characters episode all in one, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk surprised everyone and hit the reset button. Next season would be a completely different series, they said, with different characters and settings, and with only some of the actors continuing, though in different roles.
So in one fell swoop, what was thought to be the central character of American Horror Story — the haunted house, with its long and inglorious history — was razed, and a blank slate left in its place. Season 2 would be a whole new story, set in a whole new time and place.
Well, okay. Except Murphy and Galchuk also reclassified American Horror Story, now that it had a finite ending, as a miniseries, and entered it in the Emmy categories as such. (Jessica Lange, left, even won, as Outstanding Supporting Actress, for her ultra-creepy role as the nosy neighbor.) And also began calling it a repertory-company type show, even though Lange would be one of only a handful of cast members to sign up for Season 2.
So before I get to describing what the new American Horror Story is, I want to be absolutely clear and precise, for the record, about what it isn’t.
It isn’t a miniseries. Not when it has the same number of episodes each season as other FX drama series, and returns each season with additional episodes.
It isn’t a repertory-company drama series in the spirit of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater radio series, either. On TV, those are so rare a species that, in the entire history of television, I can think of only two examples. One is 1963’s The Richard Boone Show, a one-season NBC anthology series in which cast members, who included Robert Blake, Bethel Leslie and Harry Morgan, played different roles each week. The other is Nero Wolfe, a short-lived A&E detective series in which the star investigators stayed the same, but the rest of the cast members played different supporting roles in different episodes.
So for American Horror Story to be a true repertory-company series, we’d be treated, this fall, to Connie Britton in a completely new role. Well, we are, but not on American Horror Story. She’s now starring as a fading country-music superstar on ABC’s Nashville — a series that, like American Horror Story: Asylum, is televised Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET.
But we’re not expected to see Connie Britton on Asylum. Or Dylan McDermott, who played her husband last season. Or Denis O’Hare, who was the melted-face guy, or Frances Conroy, who was the old maid, who shared her role with Alexandra Breckenridge, who played the same maid, only younger.
I’m holding out hope that, in the spirit of repertory-TV fun, some or all of these actors will make cameo appearances, at least, before the Asylum season is out. (Frances Conroy, I’m thrilled to confirm, already has been announced as a future guest star.) But at least we have some strong actors added to the mix this year, as well as a few intriguingly returning faces.
And this is where I’m hesitant about providing much detail, because with a series like Asylum, where everything is a reboot, literally everything is new, so every factoid is a potential spoiler. Normally, I have little patience for hypersensitivity to “spoilers” – but in this case, part of the fun really is seeing how, and which, elements of last year’s show arrive for Season 2.
It’s eminently fair, I believe, to list some of the cast members who are returning, though in markedly different roles. They include Evan Peters (left, center), who played Lange’s homicidal son in Season 1, and supporting players Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto and Sarah Paulson. And for Asylum, the new players include James Cromwell, Chloe Sevigny (above, right), Joseph Fiennes, Adam Levine and French actress Lizzie Brocheré.
Lange is at the center of all the action, as a nun who runs things at the asylum, bestowing favors and punishments on her patients and staffers like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest matriarch Nurse Ratched, only with a very bad habit or two. There’s a lot of simmering sex and violence, some of it barely beneath the surface — and one of the strongest attributes of American Horror Story, and it holds true with Asylum, is its dizzying, sometimes breathtaking unpredictability.
What in any other series would be explained away as a dream sequence turns out to be real — and moments that seem utterly, frighteningly real may or may not be fantasies. In the first two episodes of Asylum alone, the check list includes ghosts, outer-space aliens, nymphomania, exorcisms, and demonic villains offering tasty apples to wide-eyed young women.
Fantasy? Reality? Miniseries? Repertory series?
You be the judge.
Me, I’ve judged American Horror Story: Asylum already.
Once again, I’m hooked. And, I’m deliriously happy to report, I have absolutely no idea what’s coming next…