There are three ways to watch “American Horror Story: Asylum,” FX’s follow-up to the over-the-top horror series (or for Emmy purposes, miniseries): Try to track the story, such as it is; ignore that and simply savor the atmosphere, movie references and fine actors hamming it up; or indulge in chemical enhancements to augment the surreal nature of the experience. A combination of those constituencies should again add up to basic-cable success, although for those at liberty to check out of this “Asylum,” escaping is a perfectly logical panacea to the wearying barrage of high-gloss nonsense.
As with the first “AHS,” there’s something fascinating about all the cinematic references, homages and knockoffs woven into the narrative, which in just the first two episodes include alien abduction, exorcism, “The Snake Pit,” “The Children’s Hour” and Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic “Freaks.” Say what you want about the excesses of series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, but this is one series where the DVD extras are likely better than the program itself.
As for the show (alas, there’s no avoiding that forever), the producers have indeed taken some of the actors from the original run and recast them in completely new roles — most prominently Jessica Lange, now playing a hard-hitting (literally) nun with a troubled past — while punching the haunted-house reset button with a plot opening in the present that quickly flashes back extensively to a church-run asylum, Briarcliff, in 1964.
The New England location produces a lot of Pepperidge Farm commercial accents and a dazzling set — the winding staircases of the asylum almost look like Hogwarts — but alas, no great infusion of narrative clarity. Instead, the series remains a collection of moments (creepy, campy, revolting) and stock characters, designed more to provoke and earn the “TV-MA” rating than to interact.
They include Lange’s nun, who is suspicious of the resident doctor (James Cromwell) — who might be experimenting on patients — and lustful for the monsignor (Joseph Fiennes); Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a reporter who gains access to the facility, hoping to interview a serial killer nicknamed Bloody Face (Evan Peters, another holdover); and Chloe Sevigny as a nymphomaniac.
There are some vague insights about the times; gas is 30 cents, lesbian and interracial couples must remain closeted. But such social commentary gets mostly lost in the din, which is near-unrelenting, and will no doubt earn condemnation from all the expected Catholic-advocacy groups.
“American Horror Story” represents one of those strange early-21st-century artifacts — a beautifully rendered exercise pretty enough to obscure how empty and hollow it is, fostering the illusion of deeper meaning. In that respect, this period drama is an appropriate symbol of our current media culture, where the lunatics often seem to be running the asylum.