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Sarah Paulson joins the second season cast of 'American Horror Story,' as a reporter who checks into Briarcliff.
Zachary Quinto plays the role of Dr. Oliver Thredson.
FX's "AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Asylum" goes out of its way to shock you:
There's more blood than you'll find in most prime-time programming, and enough sex and flashes of partial nudity to create a buzz.
The show seems to go out of its way insulting those of faith, making the nun who runs the asylum a former tart who wears racy red undergarments under her habit.
And action comes at you quicker than you can take it all in, from a stab-happy killer named Bloody Face to a nun who punishes through caning to monsters a doctor feeds raw meat in the nearby forest.
And yet, there's powerful storytelling going on here in a half-dozen subplots, and a cast that has its share of Oscars bringing life--albeit sick and strange at times--to the staff and patients in the spooky old facility called Briarcliff.
And although creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk go out of their way to tweak values ranging from religion to virtue, they avoid absolutes in their characters, making many both good and evil.
As Sister Jude, who runs the asylum, Jessica Lange captivates--horribly cruel and cunning one moment, but compassionate and religiously resolute the next.
We learn that she was a floozy in an earlier life, and either injured or killed a young girl driving drunk.
She believes the answer for many of the ailments isn't found in the study of mental illness, but in the application of religion, discipline and sometimes, a thick cane.
She's fierce and sometimes heartless when she deals with the odd assortment of patients, but in other moments we see she does care about their treatments and their souls.
Into this odd world wanders the most compelling character in the show, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson).
She's an aspiring journalist who's been stuck on the women's pages of the newspaper in this story set in 1964, doing cooking and feature pieces.
When she learns that a supposedly fierce killer (Evan Peters as Kit Walker) is being sent to Briarcliff for a psychological evaluation, Winters fakes an interest in the facility's bakery to gain entry.
When Sister Jude learns of her deceit, she tosses her out, only to catch Winters when she gets a young nun to help her sneak back in.
The conniving Jude throws the reporter into a cell and blackmails Winters' girlfriend into signing commitment papers.
This makes Winters the character through which we see this nightmare of a place, and Paulson does a convincing job.
But let's face it, this thing is about one shock after another.
If it's not a demon possessing a patient, there's the evil resident doctor (James Cromwell as Dr. Arthur Arden) killing off patients in experiments that may be turning men into animals.
Toss in the patient who may or may not be a serial killer, turf battles between Sister Jude and Dr. Arden, and the occasional sight of Bloody Face, and you never know what's going to happen next.
Which is exactly what may have TV fans who can stomach this twisted sort of action coming back each week.
Yes, some of these characters were around last year, but this really is a whole new story.
I don't generally like this kind of thing, and could stand less of the stuff thrown in for shock value.
But with a stellar cast--Did I mention that Joseph Fiennes plays Monsignor Timothy Howard?--and twists that pull you in each week, I'm tempted to keep watching to see where it all goes.
If for nothing more than a weekly visit to watch Lange and Paulson, two actresses at the top of their game.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415