December 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

A nun with a past. A serial killer. A Nazi doctor. Human experiments. A bloodthirsty Santa. Demonic possession. Anne Frank. You know a show has a lot going on when the occasional appearance of extraterrestrials is no more surprising than spotting a Prius on Modern Family. FX’s grand experiment American Horror Story came howling back for its second terrifying season with less of a story (each season, in case you don’t watch, has its own setting and characters, with a number of recurring actors) than a macabre, unforgettable, discordant symphony of images and characters. In a sense its ballsy, go-for-broke, don’t-tax-the-attention-span-of-any-gnats-who-might-be-watching approach embodied a year in which the purveyors of pop culture and politics grabbed our attention, for better or worse, with a series of brash, often outrageously entertaining, and occasionally infuriating pageants.

It was a year in which outright lies and shameless spin became the dominant political discourse; a year in which not even the specter of fiscal ruin could get Washington to behave; a year in which Donald Trump went too far, even for Donald Trump; a year in which a pop star gave us all the finger by singing a duet with her abuser; a year in which TV stooped so low to conquer that Honey Boo Boo got her own show.

American Horror Story: Asylum, set mostly in the 1960s, took the current zeitgeist — with all its free-floating fear, nefarious undercurrents, and outrageous anxiety — skinned it alive, and turned it into a lamp to illuminate our collectively twisted psyche and voracious appetite for distraction.

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