So let’s get something out of the way: Season 2 of American Horror Story is head and shoulders above the first one. There it is. You didn’t ask for my opinion, but this is the Internet, so I’m going to tell you anyway whether you like it or not. Now eat your broccoli.
To be quite honest, I haven’t looked into any other critical ruminations on the show, so I have no idea whether the viewing public at large agrees or disagrees with this statement. They should agree, because I’m right. I’m always right. Is everyone tired of the faux narcissism yet?
Fine then. So why then do I find this to be true? Simply put, the first season had some growing pains. This is not unnatural for any new show; from what I’ve heard, viewers didn’t start warming up to The Twilight Zone until its second season, too, which I find a little astounding. But AHS’s premiere was riddled with superficial and internal problems that were so aggravating that it made the viewing of it each week a mixture of simmering hope and enjoyment and pangs of disappointment and fury.
My main beef was that the program seemed to be pushing for the need to obtain a “cool” and “edgy” aesthetic. The frenetic editing was an eyesore, and made many scenes almost nauseating to watch. The sexual elements involving the vixen maid and the leather-clad boogeyman seemed to be forced into the plot in order to add an element of titillation for the audience, because as we all know, you can’t have horror without having some explicit hanky panky.
Besides that the overall mood of the show seemed artificial, and the story lacked any real type of engagement that, at its worst (which was a good amount of the time), reeked of honey baked hammy-soap opera. Don’t get me wrong—Jessica Lange was a hoot—but that’s the just-below-the-surface goofiness that soured the experience for me. It was like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck knew absolutely nothing about horror but decided to make something that they thought resembled the clips of more famous movies that they had accidentally watched. This wasn’t a series made for genre geeks and aficionados… this was meant for the crowd who took their dates to see Saw 15 on Halloween and thought that Freddy vs. Jason was the most bitchin’ movie of the last decade.
|LOOK AT MY SUBVERSIVENESS.|
|Almost as freaky as baby ghosts. Srsly guyz look at it, OMG.|
I warmed up to the show partly for its premise: the dark goings-on of a mental institution. That set-up goes way back to the days of Gothic novels, and it’s been used for great dramatic effect (Bedlam, 1946) and for great I-think-I’m-going-to-void-my-bowels-and-never-sleep-again effect (Session 9, 2001). The fact that the main story takes place in the early sixties was another draw, as I’m a huge geek for retro-tinted drama. The tale followed the tried-and-true approach of similar horror stories dealing with asylums: an innocent is wrongfully proclaimed as being insane and must cope with being a prisoner in a strange, distorted land. Granted, the writers felt the need to add aliens and UFO abductions to that subplot, but I’m willing to ride that one out before I’m convinced it’ll end in a fiery crash of defeat.
But what really sold me on this season was one defining moment, shining like a crystal in obsidian darkness, that somehow made up for all the ham-fisted, shoe-horned horrors of the first season. Those of you who are up to date can probably guess which moment I’m alluding to; those who are still making their way through their Tivo recordings should probably stop reading.
It comes like a shadow. Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) has just taken reporter-turned-inmate Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) into his care, helping her escape the hold of Briarcliff into the safety of his home. And yet, when Lana enters Oliver’s cleanly furnished living room, we can’t help but feel that there’s something off about the situation. Maybe it’s that palpable silence; everything seems to be muted, save for the characters’ voices. People who have watched enough horror movies are savvy to this tactic. Silence is never a good thing. It always leads to something loud, and sometimes messy.
But the creative team doesn’t take the easy route. What they do take is their precious time. Lana sits across a table from Oliver, seemingly happy at her release. But we can tell that she’s starting to share some of our same apprehensions. Why? Is it the lamp that Oliver turns on? Why does the shade look so… tan? He offers her some mints, the bleached canister it rests in making an unsettling clacking sound on the tabletop. She excuses herself to the rest room as Oliver noisily crunches on a bone-white candy. And this is where everything goes to hell, in a good way.
Lana doesn’t find the bathroom. She finds Bluebeard’s chamber, a small room packed with slabs of human skin hanging from hooks and spread across worktables. And there’s Oliver, quiet mania writhing behind his horn-rimmed glasses. His simple admission reveals that he is the serial killer known as Bloody Face, harvester of womanly flesh and destroyer of innocence. And all the tension and lingering fear finally finds expression and freedom as Lana lets out a wretched scream as she is sent through a trap door into the darkness below.
It’s such a beautifully composed scene, I’m almost jealous of it. But not as much as I’m in love with it. It works as a complete antithesis to the forced and frenzied approach of the first season with its infant monsters crawling through strobe-lit cellars. This episode, and the season as a whole, is more concerned with making good, legitimate horror filmmaking as opposed to being a walk-through of a Halloween haunted attraction. The filmmakers’ use of sound design and mounting implications play on the viewer’s nerves more craftily than any amount of bottled fetuses could ever accomplish.
Although the second season has had its fair share of gross-out and blood’n’thunder moments (Dr. Arden’s garden mutants, the exorcism, those dang aliens), the focus has shifted to developing the story and its characters to make them more meaningful to the audience. Lana’s plight and Oliver’s reveal wouldn’t have been worth a pig’s whistle if the series hadn’t taken its time beforehand to build the characters up to a significant level. Oliver was supposed to be the good guy, the savior, the rational mind that countered Jessica Lange’s Puritanical punishments. Lana was going to be the one that busted Briarcliff open, exposing it for the torture chamber it was. That is, until Bloody Face came out to play.
The direction is classy and refined, and has trimmed most of the exploitative, overwrought fat from the first season. And for the record, I also loved this season’s Christmas episode “Unholy Night,” especially Ian McShane as the patient pining to be Santa Claus. His rich, gravelly voice and bleary eyes made him a perfect mixture of lovably vulgar old codger and relentlessly violent psychopath. It’s an amusing diversion from the other Briarcliff horrors, and it’s an enjoyable addition to the canon of blood-soaked Yuletide fare.
So there you go, American Horror Story. You’ve made a liar and a fool of me. The show will see its return tonight on FX to wrap up the last few episodes of this season. It looks like the alien theme will be coming to the fore, what with Grace pregnant with possibly extraterrestrial offspring and one of the Greys in disguise (?) as the pinhead inmate. Hopefully the birth of this monstrosity isn’t a rekindling of the fairly pointless one from the first season, and that the show’s New Year resolution is to continue kicking ass.