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Maybe the craziest thing about American Horror Story's second season, which premiered last night on FX, is that it isn't a second season, really. The series is an anthology, meaning that despite the likes of Jessica Lange, Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto and Evan Peters returning, we're getting a whole new set of characters in a whole new storyline that (supposedly) has nothing to do with what happened in the haunted-house-based first season.
This season's asylum setting provides a whole new bag of treats (including the much tweeted-about exposed ass of Peters.). I watched all of Season 1, but it's liberating to have a show that is less demanding in terms of plot from season to season. This is a show that doesn't require a pre-premiere refresher cramming session. It doesn't take itself so seriously that it demands an emotional investment that carries over from last year. As fun as it can be to get involved in a TV show, it can also feel like a shit load of work. American Horror Story's clean slate is a gift and it makes it more accessible to viewers, old and new. More shows should be like that.
That said, there was something more straightforward about the season premiere than the early half of last season, which repeatedly slapped me upside the head with one ridiculous, seemingly illogical development after the next. When you're expecting something to be insane (as you would from a show that has already established itself as insane that is now set in an insane asylum), sometimes it can't go crazy enough. I knew, for example, the second reporter Laura Winter (Sarah Paulson) started poking her nose around the Briarcliff Manor Sanitarium that she'd end up committed. And while it's awesome to see woman who's in her 60's allowed to be sexual and sexy onscreen in such an age-obsessed pop cultural climate, we witnessed that last season. Jessica Lange's newly donned nun's habit is a nice touch but not exactly a game changer. (Her and Peters' put-on New England accents, though, are flat-out distracting.)
The development that surprised me the most was the Downton Abbey-like implicit contrast between when the show is set (1964, mostly) and our time. You can see that in the scene above, in which Laura's girlfriend Wendy (Clea Duvall, whom it's been great to see again between this and Argo) is kept from visiting Laura in the hospital by the ominous Sister Jude (Lange). Jude manipulates the situation using Wendy and Laura's sexuality — something that seems so backward but still happens. It was a weird moment of poignancy for a show that's generally too busy cackling like a nut in a corner to be emotionally resonant.
Even if its path feels straighter, American Horror Story is committed to being a wild ride and already there have been suggestions of upcoming (possibly engineered) monsters, an exorcism and a man wearing someone else's face as a mask. In the first episode alone, we saw Adam Levine getting his arm ripped off (after fucking using spit for lube — never underestimate this show's eye for lurid detail), Peters being abducted by aliens and then operated on by an insane doctor and Lange explicitly fantasizing about a priest. It may not rattle my bones, but like with most horror, I'm happy to watch from a removed perspective and see what it's going to do next to try to freak me out. American Horror Story understands the horror genre as primarily license to be ridiculous and it regularly drives over the speed limit. More shows should be like that, too.