[WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for the Season 2 premiere of "American Horror Story."]
We loved the first season of FX's "American Horror Story," which spun a wild haunted-house tale of a fractured family and vengeful ghosts that grabbed us by the throat and didn't let go all season long. And we were intrigued to hear that Season 2 would ditch the previous season entirely and start fresh with a new subtitle ("Asylum") and a new tale of dread. But after last night's premiere… well, we hate to say it, but we kind of want the Harmons back. "Asylum" goes even further off the rails -- for better or worse.
We admit, Season 1 of "AHS" was a little ridiculous at times. (Okay, a lot ridiculous. Connie Britton ate brains, y'all!) But we appreciated the risky storytelling and jump-off-the-couch scares it conjured up. Season 2 loses the haunted house and switches gears to a 1960s asylum for the criminally insane run by the local Catholic church. A promising setting for a horror series, to be sure, but the "Asylum" premiere offers more gore and gross-outs than psychological terror. If Season 1 was "The Shining," Season 2 feels closer to the "Saw" franchise.
Two lovers get a lesson
The premiere opens in present-day with a pair of hot-for-each-other newlyweds (Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) enjoying a honeymoon of visiting historic haunted locations and defiling them with kinky sex games. The couple arrives at a now-abandoned mental institution called Briarcliff, and the girl gleefully recites its gruesome history ("46,000 people died here") while they explore the cobwebbed interior.
After a little hot-and-heavy action while she's strapped on a gurney, the girl hears a strange noise and sweet-talks her new hubby into checking it out. This leads to the guy sticking his arm inside a rusty chute… and not getting all of it back. (Cue creepy opening credits with unsettling sound effects.) This prologue could have been an effective intro, we suppose, but the flat acting from Levine and Dewan-Tatum just made us wish the killer would just hurry up and finish them off so we could get to Jessica Lange already.
Watch the first five minutes of last night's "American Horror Story" premiere right here:
Meanwhile, back in the 1960s…
Yes, Evan Peters! The young actor was one of the best things about Season 1 of "AHS," somehow making teen ghost Tate lovable… in spite of the mass murder and all. Here, he actually gets to play a nice guy: Kit, an earnest gas-station attendant back in 1964 who just wants to get home to his secret African-American bride Alma (Britne Oldford, "Skins"). Their romance is sweet, but the interracial-marriage aspect feels like a soapboxy plot device. (In case you didn't know it, "AHS" co-creator Ryan Murphy is a staunch advocate of marriage equality and will make that clear in every frame of every show he produces.)
Anyway, we don't get to enjoy the young lovebirds for long, because an apparent alien invasion leads to Alma being torn away from Kit, not to mention to a graphic probing of Kit we only see in flashes. Now you might be wondering: Did we say "aliens"? Why, yes, we did; we've got some real "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"-type business going on here. We're not sure why the writers felt compelled to add aliens to an already overstuffed horror narrative (kind of gilding the lily, aren't ya, guys?), but it just adds to the muddled, grab-bag feel of "Asylum's" premiere.
Welcome to Briarcliff
But forget all that, because here comes Jessica Lange! She just won an Emmy for playing scenery-chewing Southern belle Constance last season, and now she's running the show as Sister Jude, the tightly-wound nun who lords over Briarcliff like Nurse Ratched in a habit. When we first meet her, she's shaving a female patient's head to punish her. She dismisses the very idea of mental illness as "the fashionable explanation for sin." She has a cabinet that houses a half-dozen canes of various widths and striking powers. We love her already. (We do, however, have to call out the grating Bahston accents that Lange and Peters have adopted here; they fall just this side of Julianne Moore's gawd-awful "30 Rock" accent on the stereotype scale.)
Kit's accused of being the notorious serial killer known as Bloody Face (guess the cops didn't buy the old "aliens did it!" defense), and is shipped off to Briarcliff while he waits to stand trial. Through his eyes, we meet the other inmates: proud nymphomaniac Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), ultra-violent thug Spivey (Mark Consuelos), and mysterious French waif Grace (Lizzie Brochere) -- who might be the only other non-nutcase in there. It looks like they're setting up Kit and Grace for some kind of inter-asylum romance, but it feels a little icky coming so soon. Aliens just took your wife, dude!
Back for more 'Horror'
Two ensemble actors from "AHS" Season 1 get meatier roles in "Asylum," and it's nice to see them get a shot at the spotlight. Sarah Paulson (Constance's psychic pal Billie last season) plays nosy reporter Lana Winters, who comes to Briarcliff looking to land an interview with Bloody Face... and ends up staying a lot longer than she intended. And Lily Rabe (Nora, the annoying ghost who kept crying "Where's my baby?" throughout Season 1) reappears here as the cowering Sister Mary Eunice, who trembles at the sound of Sister Jude's footsteps.
Meanwhile, Sister Jude has two powerful men to contend with at Briarcliff. First, the sadistic Dr. Arden (James Cromwell, a very long way from "Babe"), who seeks to cure mental illness via the miracle of science… and isn't afraid to chop up a few bodies in the name of progress. Jude and Arden's fierce arguments are standard religion-vs.-science fare, but both actors are so good, they manage to sell it. Then there's the Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes), the handsome young priest at the helm of Briarcliff who stirs very different emotions in Sister Jude… namely, red-hot lust. Jude's steamy fantasies about the Monsignor adds an interesting twist to her character; everybody at Briarcliff has their share of dirty secrets, it seems.
But is it scary?
Don't worry: The familiar "AHS" creep factor is definitely still alive and well in "Asylum." Briarcliff is like a grisly Halloween nightmare come to life, with Sister Mary Eunice ritually dumping unidentified meat in the forest late at night to feed… what, exactly? Dr. Arden's mutated creations? More aliens? "Asylum" packed plenty of plotlines into its premiere -- enough that it'll take all season long to sort out. And we probably haven't even heard half the horror stories lurking at Briarcliff yet. So even though we were a little underwhelmed by the premiere (and the aliens), we'll keep tuning into this new "Story"… if only to see how outlandish things get.
"American Horror Story" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.