Last year at this time I wrote a column for this publication in which I wondered how advertisers might react to the overt depictions of horrific situations in FX’s “American Horror Story,” which had just debuted on the network to robust ratings and significant critical acclaim. I also referenced the scenes of brutal shock and gory horror in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which continues to deliver more nerve-frying tension and genuine scares than anything on television.
Well, with the second season premiere of “American Horror Story” having topped much of its broadcast competition among young demographic groups earlier this week, and “The Walking Dead” having broken a few basic cable ratings records last Sunday with the first episode of its third season, it would seem that the networks behind both franchises have little to fear. There is clearly a growing audience for the horror genre -- and much of it consists of those elusive young adults that advertisers continue to covet.
That’s good news all around, especially where “The Walking Dead” is concerned, because despite the carping of those few critics last season who complained that the narrative slowed down to a crawl for several episodes when the series’ main characters sought refuge from countless flesh-eating ghouls in a remote farmhouse, it remains one of the finest and most engaging dramatic series on television. The characters continue to develop from season to season (those who survive, anyway) and the storytelling still twists and turns in shocking and surprising ways.
The characters were a largely directionless, rag-tag group during the first two seasons, but right from the opening moments of season three (which began several months after the end of season two) it was clear that they learned how to work together and function as effective survivalists. I didn’t see that coming. I also wouldn’t have imagined that by the end of last Sunday’s episode I’d be watching Rick, the leader of the group, chop off part of Herschel’s leg after he was bitten below the knee by a walker. Shown in shocking close-up, it was hardly a quick amputation, making the horror of the moment all the more searing. Then again, “Dead” has never shied away from graphic depictions of inconceivable terror -- the more up close and personal, the better.
“American Horror Story” (which has added “Asylum” to its title for season two) is something else entirely, and not just because it is structured as an annual mini-series rather than an ongoing drama. I’m not really sure what to make of the first two episodes of its sophomore year -- which take place largely in 1964 in a creepy church-run institution for those deemed criminally insane -- but they surely set some kind of new tolerance level for uncompromised adult entertainment (over and above the show’s bizarre first season). These episodes include more sex, nudity and adult language than just about anything I have ever seen on advertiser-supported television, or in much original pay-cable fare. The violence is pretty explicit, as well. No f-bombs are heard and no penises or nipples are on display, but otherwise it seems that nothing is off limits. Such edgy narrative elements aren’t necessarily anything new for an adult FX drama series, but the frequency and intensity with which they punctuate the storytelling are seemingly unprecedented for the medium.
That said, season two of “AHS: Asylum” already has more potential than the uneven first season of the franchise, which was compromised by the inexplicable behavior of a family that refused to distance itself from an obviously very dangerous house and the psychotic “people” who were drawn to it. It was also somewhat unbelievable that so much crazy shiz could happen in a house on a busy suburban street in present-day Los Angeles. (Surely someone would notice something!)
But series co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and their team have nimbly navigated around such concerns this season, setting the action in a world of madness and mayhem so removed from everyday existence and yet so grounded in the extremes of human behavior that absolutely anything goes, often in horrible fashion. Accordingly, the first two episodes offer a merry mash up of demonic possession, alien abduction, sexual perversion, religious repression, serial killing and maniacal medical experimentation.
At the dark and twisted center of it all is Jessica Lange, fresh off her Emmy win for season one and instantly establishing herself as an entirely new character with an even meaner streak (and similar award potential). From what I have seen so far, I would describe every member of this cast as “fearless” – especially Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson, both veterans of the “AHS” franchise.
The most accurate word to describe “AHS: Asylum” is probably “unhinged,” but I mean that in the best possible way. Like so many series on FX – and AMC, for that matter – it is not so much pushing basic cable programming beyond its boundaries as it is forcing the medium to grow up. That can only be good news for adults who enjoy television -- and the advertisers who want to reach them.