Since the series inception, “American Horror Story” has garnered a captive cult following. The groundbreaking horror anthology proved itself a genre pioneer with its edgy content, psycho-sexual undercurrent, and a new storyline each season, with a definitive beginning, middle and end. Season one followed the perils of a troubled family who unknowingly moved into a haunted house. Some squeamish critics were surprised when it tied AMC’s “Mad Men” in receiving 17 Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
The second season, subtitled “Asylum,” received another impressive 17 Primetime Emmy nominations, edging out Game of Thrones (with 16 nominations), to make it the most nominated show this year. “Asylum” took place in 1960s Boston in an institution for the criminally insane and dealt with several heavy themes, including demon possession, a corrupt mental health system, racism, and homophobia. The overall tone of the second installment was much darker than the first, and the end result raised the small screen bar. Season three’s concept, “Coven,” promises to bring thrills and horrors of witches and the occult. Here are five reasons why “American Horror Story: Asylum” dominated this year’s Primetime Emmy nominations.
Behind-the-Scenes MagicIt’s not surprising 12 of “Asylum’s” Emmy nods are for the intensive and elaborate behind-the-scenes creative collaboration that brought Briarcliff Manor’s dark and eerie world so vividly to life. From the off-the-charts eerie main title opening sequence to the dark depths of the death chute, the minute we entered the “Asylum,” we boarded a one-hour terror train and prayed for light at the end of the tunnel.
The Emmy-nominated makeup and prosthetic design teams led by Eryn Krueger Mekash and Oscar winner Christien Tinsley had a large hand in making our hearts pound and our stomachs churn. Bloody Face’s mask of human flesh and Shelley’s (Chloë Sevigny) grotesque evolution into Dr. Arden’s boil-covered, amputee experiment are just two in a sea of horrific images the makeup and FX teams created that we won’t soon forget.
Vicious VillainsIt’s impossible, even now, not to shudder at the thought of Zachary Quinto as Dr. Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face and James Cromwell as Dr. Arthur Arden administering sadistic torture to helpless victims. These men fully deserve their Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy nods. They totally transformed themselves into demented sociopaths who unleashed equal parts psychological terror and physical trauma.
Who can forget the sight of Quinto in the Bloody Face mask, standing over Sarah Paulson as Lana? It was utterly horrifying to watch Dr. Arden nurture his Nazi-inspired desire to create a superior race. When Franka Potente appeared for an outstanding two-episode arc as a mental patient claiming to be Anne Franke and eventually landing on Arden’s lobotomy table, we were chilled to the bone.
Female Fright FestThe ladies definitely led the “Asylum” fright fest, with Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe all delivering brilliant performances that were 360 degrees from their season one characters. Lange snagged the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy last year for her riveting AHS season one portrayal of deeply disturbed Constance Langdon. She scared us on an entirely different level in “Asylum” as dark and devious Sister Jude, who battled her own inner demons and had a penchant for doling out harsh corporal punishment. Jude’s descent into madness over the course of the season marks some of Lange’s finest acting work to date.
Sarah Paulson shined as bold and brazen reporter, Lana Winters, who was involuntarily committed to Briafcliff and unwittingly rescued by Dr. Thredson/Bloody Face, who held her prisoner in his lair. As “Asylum’s” heroine, Paulson kept us actively engaged and rooting for Lana’s ultimate salvation.
Lily Rabe iced the creepy cake as Sister Mary Eunice, whose stunning performance swung from innocent nun to a murderous, demon-possessed monster. Paulson and Lange are up for Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmys. While Rabe didn’t make the cut, her work certainly deserves recognition as well.
Strong Social Commentary
“American Horror Story: Asylum” co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk dove into some dark and stormy social waters touching on racism, sexism, homophobia, Nazism and unjust treatment of mental patients. These big underlying themes informed some very intense scenes. The most disturbing sequences included Lana receiving shock treatment and then undergoing aversion therapy in an attempt to be “cured” of her homosexuality. Paulson’s emotionally grueling, Emmy-worthy work was painful to watch on many levels.
Rise to the Repertory Challenge
The series anthology concept with a sort of repertory-style returning cast is brilliant. It gives Ryan Murphy and the entire AHS crew a ton of creative latitude. Skeptics wondered if viewers would bond with cast favorites in totally new roles. Could viewers, for instance, look at breakout star Evan Peters and not immediately and irrevocably see Tate Langdon?
Evan Peters is just one of many returning season one cast members who rose to the repertory challenge of this series and proved he is a talented and versatile actor who can thrive in a dynamic creative environment. We found no trace of Tate Langdon in troubled and free-spirited Kit Walker and we didn’t mind at all. Season one’s leading man, Dylan McDermott, marks another prime example. He returned toward the end of “Asylum” as gritty psychopath Johnny Morgan. The terrifying transformation found fans clamoring for a season three, “American Horror Story: Coven” return.
Lori Melton is a freelance writer. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.