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American Horror Story: Asylum, desire, sleaze – and funny bits

So crazy. So scary. So sexy. That's American Horror Story: Asylum (FX Canada, 10 p.m.), the second season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's warped, meandering journey through scenes where the erotic meets the demented. There are a few laughs too.

Murphy and Falchuk, creators of Glee, unleashed American Horror Story a year ago, taking viewers into the haunted home of a psychiatrist who had moved his family to Los Angeles after his disastrous fling with a patient back east. What ensued in the mind-bending series was ghosts, kinky sex and Jessica Lange chewing the scenery with lip-smacking delight as a decaying Southern belle next door who happened to be dead. In the end, everybody was dead.

The second instalment in what Murphy calls "an anthology series" reunites some of the cast in different roles in a different setting. It's Briarcliff, an asylum for the criminally insane run by the Catholic Church, in 1964. Lange is back, still smacking her lips, as the hissing dominatrix Sister Jude, who is in charge of the joint. "Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin," she spits at somebody, early on. And she declares that at Briarcliff, the regimen is "productivity, prayer and purification." She enforces the regimen with a riding crop.

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This is adult entertainment – cable drama that pushes and pushes at the boundaries of taste and titillation. As flaky, scary and arch as American Horror Story is, the series has a lot going for it. There's a huge audience for the cathartic thrill of danger delivered with a dollop of warped desire. I could link it to the appeal of the S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey but I can better illustrate with a story, an event that sticks in my mind.

Years ago in Dublin, I was in a bar waiting to meet a friend of mine. It wasn't my kind of place – one of those slick spots where twentysomethings went to drink before going to the nightclubs. Stuck at the bar, I witnessed a young woman – name of Rose, I distinctly recall – gamely trying to flirt with a chap, a tall strapping lad who had begun chatting her up a few minutes earlier. A slight, tiny figure, even in her absurdly high heels, she looked up at the fella and asked, "So, what do you do?" He, his elbow on the counter, mustered a certain sangfroid, gazed down at her and said, gruffly, "I'm a butcher." Rose's frail timbers shivered, visibly, she recoiled slightly, her eyes widened and she squealed, "Ooooh, Jayzus!" It was the best distillation of the thrill of fear I've ever seen.

There's a lot of Rose's giddy feelings in American Horror Story. It's just cranked up to in-your-face lurid. What Murphy and Falchuk are doing, often, is toying with the clichés and iconography of American horror stories – movies, novels and TV shows that set out to scare and became classics. There's a touch of Hitchcock here and a suggestion of Texas Chainsaw Massacre there. It's a heady concoction, one that is salacious, sleazy and funny.

We enter events with a young honeymooning couple. They're horror aficionados and spending their honeymoon visiting haunted, reputedly terrifying places. Thus they stop at the ruins of Briarcliff, in the present, and begin fooling around. Now, as the whole world knows, no good comes of having quickie sex in a deserted asylum. The movies told us so. And bad things happen here as wife pleasures hubby, and he happens to see something terrifying.

Then we're back in 1964. A Drifters song is on the radio, and gas costs 30 cents a gallon. A lady reporter turns up at Briarcliff to do a story about the asylum's bakery, or so she says. As she arrives, an annoying child tries to chat – a peculiarly vicious-looking child, actually. The reporter is polite, though. Then a nun appears out of nowhere and shoos the kid away. "She's not harmless," the nun announces. "She drowned her sister's baby and cut its ears off."

Okey-dokey then. We know where we're going. Pretty soon, Chloe Sevigny turns up playing an inmate and informs Sister Jude that she can shave her head bald but she's still "the hottest tamale in this place." Sevigny's character, we're told, is there because she's a nymphomaniac. Time passes, and there's the asylum's doctor, played by James Cromwell, with a menacing look in his eye. And Sister Jude is having dinner with a Monsignor, played by Joseph Fiennes. You have not seen arch, OMG! weirdness until you've seen Sister Jude's fantasy about said Monsignor.

Lange is magnificent here, doing a slight variation on the role that won her an Emmy in the first American Horror Story. One understands why she and the other high-grade actors are attracted to this concoction – they get to act in big, broad strokes. And yet there's fun in material so crazy, so scary and so perversely sexy. It'll shiver your timbers.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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