Confession of a lifelong horror fan: The first season of FX's American Horror Story left me cold, more appalled than terrified at the overindulgent mishmash of psychosexual poppycock ensnaring unpleasant characters, plus the overkill of a house teeming with too many tedious ghosts, proving the adage that more can be less — effective, that is, although the hype and the buzz carried it to a whopping 17 Emmy nominations (in the miniseries category, where the competition is less fierce). It won only two, for hairstyling (OK) and for Jessica Lange (well-deserved), who swanned around upstaging everyone like a deranged Tennessee Williams heroine auditioning for a remake of some Bette Davis Grand Guignol classic from the '60s. Cat on a Hot Tin Mess, anyone? (The show also should have won for its incredibly creepy main title sequence, which is just as unnerving this time around.)
Lange is equally terrific in the second season, subtitled Asylum (10/9c), and I'm happy to report she's hardly alone. Because the best thing about last year's show is that the slate has been wiped clean for the sequel. American Horror Story is an anthology series, in case you missed the news, with each season a stand-alone narrative with an entirely new setting and cast of characters (although many of the actors carry over in something of a repertory company). And judging from the disturbingly surreal opening chapters — I've seen two — Asylum delivers a much more evocative nightmare gallery without losing any of the franchise's provocative, look-ma-I'm-screaming bravado.
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The screaming starts early in a classic horror-story set-up in the present day, with interlopers (I won't say who) horsing around the spooky ruins of Briarcliff, once upon a time a tuberculosis clinic (with a super-cool secret "death chute" tunnel) that in the '60s became a sanitarium for the criminally insane, run by Catholic nuns and priests. We soon learn in the ickiest way possible that it's not a good idea to joke about past inmates like the notorious serial killer "Bloody Face" (this season's less preposterous and more horrific version of Rubber Suit Man).
Cut to 1964, when Briarcliff Asylum is in full demented swing, run with an iron cane by Lange's stern, sinister Sister Jude. Her red undergarments beneath the traditional nun's habit hint at the sort of forbidden desires and passions that run through many of Asylum's storylines (dealing with interracial and same-sex relationships, seen as the "monster in the closet" to the vindictive bigots of the time). The luridly overstuffed plotting, not uncommon from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, embraces everything from mass murder to alien abduction to demonic possession to mysterious lurking creatures in the woods, who are fed offal by Jude's twitchy acolyte Sister Mary Eunice, played by another of last season's returnees, the delightfully daffy Lily Rabe.
Somehow, this everything-but-the-kitchen-abattoir approach rarely feels as campy or as forced as last year's haunted-house hijinks. Maybe that's because a madhouse is just a scarier place by nature, and unlike last season, we understand why most of the people inside don't just pack up and leave when things get hairy. But Murphy and Falchuk have also created a more sympathetic group of characters, especially among the more restless inmates trapped in Briarcliff against their will (including returning players Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson, both more palatable this season than last). Beyond the shocks inherent in slasher-style horror and (in the second episode) a violent exorcism, this story features an intriguing ongoing clash between faith and science, played out in Sister Jude's frequent battles with the clinic's imperious doctor (James Cromwell), who appears to be doing unsanctioned medical experiments on the helpless prisoners.
Zachary Quinto, yet another returning star, shows up next week as a court-ordered psychiatrist understandably appalled at the conditions and barbaric customs of Briarcliff. "It's a madhouse, doctor. What did you expect?" cracks Sister Jude, who's already on record declaring, "Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin." I often wish the writers didn't feel the need to be so fashionably vulgar — especially tiresome is Chloe Sevigny's trash-mouthed token nymphomaniac — but when it comes to delivering graphic chills, American Horror Story is more than living up to its billing this year. So far, I'm mad about it.
GOING MEDIEVAL: Another sequel, another tart-tongued nun, and an epic heaping of more eye-rolling melodrama than you can shake a sword at. That's the formula at work in the eight-hour World Without End (Reelz, 8/7c), picking up the story of Ken Follett's historical-fiction blockbuster The Pillars of the Earth two centuries later (in the 1300s), with all manner of mayhem and scheming unfolding in the shadow of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, whose construction was the focus of the first volume (and first miniseries, originally shown on Starz in 2010). This time, more attention is paid to an aging, sagging bridge, which serves as a lifeline and key source of revenue to this English countryside town and its greedy priory. In many ways, World Without End might be thought of as "A Bridge Too Far," because while life in this unusually hectic market village has never been a picnic, things soon go ludicrously haywire.
It all begins with the sudden arrival, after a devastating civil war, of a knight (Ben Chaplin) harboring a royal secret, who takes sanctuary as a monk but draws unwelcome attention to Knightsbridge from the corrupt court of the queen. Before we've even begun to start sorting out the sprawling cast of characters, there are betrayals which lead to mass hangings of innocents branded as traitors, and a pattern quickly emerges of terrible things happening to good people. Forget true love. The course of absolutely nothing goes smoothly for the people of Kingsbridge.
No complaints with the lavish production design, said to cost $46 million, filmed in Hungary and Austria among other European locations, with a starry cast including Miranda Richardson as a wise, wry nun who like the rest of the white hats in this story always seems to be on the right side of any conflict (though she can only rarely affect a happy ending). The lead villainess is an unlikely Cynthia Nixon, having a ball as a craven widow who merrily offs anyone — through poisoning and drowning in tonight's two-hour opener alone — to better her social position and that of her mewling son, a piously perverse and ambitious friar.
There's no reason to doubt there was this much cruelty and injustice in the world then as there is now, but in this miniseries without end, there's not a single character with a shade of gray in his or her moral complexion. They're either all saintly or thoroughly despicable, and while I've looked ahead and know it doesn't arrive until the sixth hour, the plague can't come soon enough to suit me.
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