American Horror Story: Asylum probably isnât very good for you.
Borgen and the like offer nutritious televisual ruffage, keeping your brain nice and regular, while Utopiaâs well made, thoroughly filling and incredibly moreish – a stodgy quiche, if you will, landmined with Scotch bonnets, guaranteed, at some point, to blow your lips clean off. American Horror Story: Asylum promises no such wholesomeness: itâs a burger the size of a bin lid, deep fried in batter, stuffed with the entire contents of an Odeon pickânâmix counter and garnished with MDMA and hand grenades. Itâs insane. It offers you no edification whatsoever. And itâs brilliant.
As its rather bald title suggests, itâs a creepy story, in a creepy location, somewhere creepy in creepiest America, all spun into a narrative arc upon which as many horror tropes as possible are hung, stapled, stuck and balanced, before the season ends. Because each series is its own standalone tale, their finales hit the reset button and the next series sees the actors in different roles, telling a brand new story. Itâs a novel device; one which allows it to avoids outstaying its welcome (hello, Lost) or getting hogtied in its own mythos (Lost, again, hello). An upshot too is that anyone whoâs missed the first series can gleefully leap right into the second. Which is fortunate, because you should.
Asylum begins, as does any horror yarn worth your time, with someone doing something stupid. Namely, a newlywed couple breaking into the abandoned remains of Briarcliff Mental Asylum – because, in Horror Land, newlyweds require the potent musk and sexy gloom of murder to become adequately aroused. It comes as no surprise at all, then, that these newlyweds (one of whom is played by professional chin and Maroon 5 warbler Adam Levine) come a brutal and bloody cropper.
The action then swoops back to a sepia-stylised 1964 – the titular Asylumâs heyday. The facilityâs overseen by the tyrannical Sister Jude (a brilliant, snarling Jessica Lange, channelling Nurse Ratched in a rather fetching habit). The rest of the Asylumâs staff are similarly nurturing: thereâs the asylumâs physician and token maniacal surgeon Dr Arden (the eminent James Cromwell, he of âThatâll do, Pigâ? fame); Judeâs serpentine Holy superior Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes); and forward-thinking psychiatrist Dr Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), all of whom manage to make Briarcliff a peculiar kind of hell for the poor, drooling saps imprisoned there, all lithiumed and electro-shocked into cognitive oblivion.
Initially, watching Asylum is a little bit like being in a stockade while great handfuls of horror clichÃ© are hurled at you. Thereâs alien abduction, dismemberment, serial killers, vivisection, and more playing fast-and-loose with the responsibilities of basic patient care than you can shake an inch-thick whacking-cane at. Before long, youâve seen mutants, Nazis, demonic possession and a murderous Ian McShane in a Santa outfit. Yes, Lovejoy. Picture that for a second, and say, honestly, youâre not even a little curious.
It doesnât try to make sense. It doesnât even pretend that itâs scary. All it wants is for you to like it, thatâs all, like an insecure cat dropping animal carcasses in your slippers in disgusting attempts to win you over. It uses your prior horror knowledge against you, hitting you with such a precession of narrative curveballs that eventually youâre punch-drunk enough to just go along with it, blinkered and enthralled. You want to try and second guess what manner of preposterous, claret-soaked idiocy itâs going to throw at you next.
You wonât be able to, though – the writers, clearly having a ball, see to that, constantly testing just how far youâre prepared to follow a bottomless descent into horror kitchen-sinkery. Predictably, a freewheeling narrative soon becomes a behind-the-telly wire arrangement of near-nonsensical twists, but these twists are never predictable because theyâre daft as a party bag of boobs. At one point, when you think youâve got the show worked out, it throws in Anne Frank. Yes, that one. And by this point youâre powerless to resist. You need to know what happens next. It has you, and thereâs nothing you can do about it.
Itâs stupid, exciting, and the type of fun a lot of American genre series these days forget to be. The cast, too, are superb, diving so wholeheartedly into their deplorable characters that you can almost see the corners of their mouths rising, pre-corpse, at the end of every scene. You can feel their giddiness through the screen. Itâs infectious.
To delve too deeply into more of the plot would do potential viewers a disservice. All you need to know is that the second series is nearing the end of its run, so repeats on FX are your best option if you fancy a slice of the fattening daftness. As itâs reset time, you could even wait until series three, when the next story begins. Although, that way, youâll never get to see Lovejoy, mass-murdering, in a Santa suit.