In its debut season, "American Horror Story" was television's freakiest freak show -- an overstuffed, blood-spattered haunted-house nightmare that was almost as laughable as it was bold and shocking.
The FX series from producer Ryan Murphy ("Glee") sent some viewers fleeing in disgust. But many us were transfixed like rubber-neckers at a 12-car pileup. We couldn't take our eyes off it. And so we withstood every scary, kinky, twisty plot development just to see if there was a method to Murphy's madness.
And when it was over, we were surprised to learn that it all was a one-shot miniseries -- and that for Season 2, Murphy and his demented pals would hit the "restart" button.
The result is "American Horror Story: Asylum," a saga that deploys some of the same actors from the original but in totally different roles and settings. Now, instead of a haunted Victorian in modern-day Los Angeles, the terror takes place at an East Coast facility for the criminally insane, circa 1964. As forboding as Alcatraz and as bat-poop looney as McMurphy's infamous cuckoo's nest, Briarcliff Manor is run by a wickedly stern nun (Jessica Lange) named Sister Jude.
She might as well be nurse Ratched in a habit -- a repressed woman with a troubled past who maintains a collection of canes and whips in order to torture anyone who dares step out of line. She's surrounded by a cast of creepy characters ranging from a doctor (James Cromwell) who conducts cruel experiments
Wednesday's pilot episode begins in the present day as a newlywed couple (Maroon 5's Adam Levine plays the husband) explores the remains of an abandoned Briarcliff as part of a haunted honeymoon tour. Of course, this is a Ryan Murphy show, so they immediately shed their pants and attempt to get their erotic kicks among the rubble, only to have things go scarily awry.
From there, we flash back to the heyday of Briarcliff, which is about to welcome Kit Walker (Evan Peters), a young man accused of killing several women, including his wife. Also new to the scene is Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a snoopy reporter who immediately gets on Sister Jude's nerves. If that's not enough to keep track of, there are also early hints of, or references to, alien abductions, Nazis, exorcisms and some kind of eerie creatures that hang out in the woods beyond Briarcliff.
Just like its predecessor, "Asylum" is one hot mess of a show full of convoluted, helter-skelter plot twists, sexual fetishes, hammy performances and plenty of flagrant violence. Only now, it's spiced with the warmed-over horrors of Murphy's Catholic school-boy days. Lord, the man must has some issues.
But something is also missing: As crazy and unsettling as Season 1 may have been, it was grounded in the woes of a fractured family and a haunted house that, well, hit closer to home. I assume that most of us would relate more to domestic dysfunction than mental-ward madness. Likewise, there's something inherently more frightening about seeing Jessica Lange as a creepy, intrusive neighbor than a whacked-out nun -- unless you've done plenty of youthful penance in the shadow of a crucifix.
That said, we'll probably stick around for a while, just to see where Murphy and his crew are going with all this. But for now, "Asylum" really is just holding me, instead of totally gripping me.