After the success of the first season of American Horror Story, a second season seemed an inevitability. Seeing the “permanence” of the first season’s conclusion, however, it was obvious that creators, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, would have to approach the show’s sophomore outing with a decidedly different and very novel tact, changing up the formula while still retaining many of the actors that helped make their show such a breakout hit.
With American Horror Story: Asylum, the creators switched settings from the current-day Los Angeles “murder house” to mid-1960s Massachusetts, and the former tuberculosis hospital-turned-insane asylum, Briarcliff, overseen by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) and his right hand (wo)man, Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange).
Briarcliff is an overcrowded and understaffed hell hole where piousness and punishment are doled out in equal measure by the hard-as-nails Sister Jude, who is as tough on her staff as she is on her patients, especially the young Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), whose innocence and compassion Sister Jude views as weakness. The only person Sister Jude doesn’t hold any sway over is the nefarious Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), whose experimental treatment methods, while often cruel and controversial, are sanctioned by the ambitious Monsignor, who hopes to parlay his work at Briarcliff into bigger and better things within the church.
The series opens in the present, with a pair of urban adventurers/newlyweds (Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) exploring the derelict Briarcliff, and swapping stories about the institution’s legendary former-tenant, Bloody Face. The two ultimately come face-to-bloody-face with what appears to be the long-dead killer, and, after a gory tease of what’s to come, we are taken back to 1964, to bear witness to where it all began.
We’re then introduced to the mixed-race couple that is Kit Walker (season one alumni, Evan Peters) and his wife, Alma (Britne Oldford). While Kit and Alma do their best to keep their marriage a secret, the two are constantly under siege by former friends of Kit’s who don’t approve of their union. After one such attack, in which Kit brandishes a rifle to scare off their tormentors, the two settle down for a night’s sleep when they’re once again interrupted by a ruckus outside. This time, however, it’s a different type of visitor entirely. The house is awash in light, and Kit is sucked out of his home and into the night sky. When we next see him, he’s being escorted into Briarcliff, convicted of not just the murder of his wife, Alma (whose skinless corpse was discovered in their house during his disappearance), but a string of other murders credited to the aforementioned Bloody Face.
As Kit is fitted for a straightjacket, hard-nosed reporter, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, another returnee from season one), is busy trying to dig up dirt on Briarcliff. During her investigation, she uncovers something that could take the hospital down, but, unbeknownst to her, Sister Jude has done a little digging of her own. It seems that Lana is a lesbian who is “shacking up” with a schoolteacher, Wendy (Clea DuVall), and, with a bit of coercion and the era’s disdain for homosexuality (which was considered a “treatable psychiatric disorder), Sister Jude manages to get Lana committed to Briarcliff, where she is put in the care of the seemingly compassionate Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto).
Things get deeply intricate from there, with the introduction of several peripheral characters with backstories ranging from sex addict to axe murdering Santa Claus, as well as story arcs involving demonic possession, a patient who thinks she’s Anne Frank (Franka Potente), and even the Angel of Death (Frances Conroy, who also turns up as a super-butch inmate from an overcrowded woman’s prison that ultimately moves into the asylum). Hell, there’s even a song-and-dance number!
Throughout it all, Falchuk and Murphy wear the season’s influences proudly on their bloody sleeves, with nods to The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Boys from Brazil, The Exorcist, and just about anything involving sex, religion, and murder. The show’s creators obviously revel in exposing the intolerance and hypocrisy of the Catholic church, which, unfortunately, does come off as a tad preachy and overstated, but, as with the show’s first season, the soap opera antics (shades of Dark Shadows), and general absurdity of it all makes it irresistible. It’s must-see TV at its most decadent and salacious, packed to the gills with excellent performances (Lange, once again, steals the season as Jude, but Rabe, Peters, and a deliciously devious Quinto also rise to the occasion), and expertly executed by its creators who, despite a proclivity for throwing anything and everything at the wall to see what sticks, manage to tie together myriad plot threads into one tidy bow by season’s end. I don’t know how they did it (and, by the fifth episode in the season I was convinced it wasn’t possible), but, damnit, they pulled it out.
Fox brings American Horror Story: Asylum to Blu-ray just in time for the premiere of the series’ newest incarnation – the highly anticipated Coven, which airs Wednesday, October 09, on the FX network. As with the previous set, Asylum comes presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a transfer that is, as one would expect, close to perfect, but there are some problems. The image is intentionally more subdued in terms of vibrancy to both reflect the period as well as Briarcliff’s dour environs, but, once the action steps foot out of the asylum’s stone-and-shadow surroundings, the image shows a bit more “pop”, especially in places like Thredson’s art deco pad and the warm gold hues of the Walker abode. Sharpness and clarity are exceptional, as is the level of fine detail, but I did find the levels of contrast to be a bit extreme on occasion, with overpowering whites and detail-crushing blacks. It’s not a common occurrence, and, in comparing it to the streaming episodes of the series, I found the same instances of inconsistent contrast, so it’s certainly not an issue limited to the Blu-ray.
The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is very good, and, with a series in which sound design is given a tremendous amount of attention, the track handles the subtle nuances and creepy dimensional effects quite nicely.
It’s become something of an unwelcome trend for studios to skimp on extras when it comes to season sets of television series, and, while I wish I could say Fox sidestepped said trend, sadly, this is another case in which fans are given the short shrift. What we do get are a few deleted scenes, and a collection of short featurettes including “What Is American Horror Story: Asylum?”, a short collection of interviews and clips from the show; the production design-centric, “Welcome to Briarcliff Manor” (HD), and The Creatures (HD), which highlights the show’s make-up FX work. We’re also given something of a throwaway short titled “The Orderly” (HD) , a somewhat amateurish Bloody Face tale.
Fans of American Horror Story will almost certainly want to add this set to their collection, while new initiates can rest assured that, while they won’t need to watch Asylum to understand what’s going on in “Coven”, once they get bitten by the AHS bug, they’ll definitely want to go back and watch this sly, sexy, and subversive series from the beginning. Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is technically proficient, but, sadly, as is often the case with season sets, is a bit lacking in terms of extras. Still, it’s a reasonably priced set (under $40 at most of your favorite online retailers) for nearly 600 minutes of pure horror/drama bliss, and comes highly recommended.