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New story, same good scares

Suppose you made the daftest, most over the top series on television last year. What do you do for a second act? If you're Ryan Glee Murphy and Brad Falchuk, creators of American Horror Story, it's simple: you start from scratch and do it all over again, but make it even dafter and more over the top than last time.

American Horror Story: Asylum is, as the title might suggest, nuts. But it's also audacious. It does something that's never been done on television before; it takes the same main actors from their first series (Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and, from next week, Zachary 'Spock' Quinto) and cast them as completely new characters in a new story, set in a different location and period.

AHS: Asylum opens in the present day, as a pair of young lovers (Jenna Dewan Tatum and Adam Levine, from the band Maroon 5) who also happen to be horror fans explore the creepy, abandoned Briarcliff Manor. Within moments they're being terrorised by evil forces from the past.

As they fight for their lives, we're whisked back to 1964, when Briarcliff was a Bedlam-like Catholic insane asylum run by sadistic, unhinged nun Sister Jude (a scenery-chewing Lange giving a performance as ripe as a rotten banana), who thinks "mental illness is a spiritual crisis".

In a genuine case of the lunatics taking over the asylum, Jude brutalises and tortures her patients, who are a gallery of grotesques. She's also sexually repressed; she wears a slinky scarlet slip under her habit and fantasises about seducing an ambitious young monsignor (Joseph Fiennes).

But Jude has a professional rival, the institution's medic Dr Arden (James Cromwell), an equally demented, Mengele-like character who performs experiments on live patients.

What he does with their corpses afterwards is hinted at in a brief shot of bloody meat plopping into a bowl.

Into this nightmare comes lesbian journalist Lana Winters (Paulson), who's hoping to expose what's going on, but instead ends up being incarcerated by Jude, who blackmails Lana's lover, a local teacher, into signing committal forms.

And there's more: a serial killer called Bloody Face has just been deposited at Briarcliff. Except -- as we know but the characters don't -- he's not really Bloody Face at all, but an innocent young mechanic called Kit Walker (Peters), whose wife had earlier vanished into thin air as he was abducted by aliens and given a rather unpleasant probe. Subtle this is NOT. It turns the amp all the way up to 11 and then keeps twisting the knob.

But it's terrifically well made and steeped in a genuinely nightmarish atmosphere.

Still, even though I love a bit of grand guignol as much as the next man (provided the next man is not Vincent Price), this opener was relentlessly, intensely, shriekingly frenetic. If the next few episodes don't pause for breath, I fear I might need treatment myself.

There was a moment last night when Homeland, which has been swimming dangerously close to the shark this last couple of weeks without actually jumping it, seemed to have finally lost the plot. Ice-cool CIA agent Quinn unexpectedly loses his temper while interrogating Brody and rams a switchblade through the latter's hand.

But in another example of the series' ability to confound expectations and yank itself back from the edge of a cliff, it turns out this was just a violent display of theatrics so Carrie, the good cop to Quinn's bad one, could get inside Brody's head.

Brody was made an offer he couldn't refuse: either work with the CIA and discover how Abu Nazir plans to attack America, or face the shame of a public trial for treason. Having been a pawn of the terrorists, Brody is now a pawn of the CIA. But since he hasn't completely spilled his guts to Carrie (he didn't admit to wearing the explosive vest), just who's playing who?

Game on -- again.

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