AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM 1×01 – "Welcome to Briarcliff"

Evan Peters in AMERICAN HORROR STORY ASYLUM

Oh, American Horror Story, I wish I knew how to quit you.

Last season, I had planned to only review the first two episodes of the series, which I found ridiculously over-the-top and unintentionally hilarious. "[Executive producers] Falchuk and Murphy," I wrote, "have just thrown every scary movie trope they could think of in a blender, and then hurled the resulting vile horror slurry at a high-speed fan to see how much of it will stick to our TV screens."

But, as it turned out, I just couldn't resist reviewing the show every week. After all, American Horror Story gave me the opportunity to write about ancient demon infants, slutty ghost maids, the antichrist, rubbermen, burned men, and pig men.  From week to week—where other, more worthy shows offered serious (and comparatively dull) drama—AHS allowed me to discuss home invasions, shovel bludgeonings, school massacres, S&M murders, spontaneous penectomies, brain-eating, dog-microwaving, and the aesthetics of sewing batwings onto dead babies.

As John Irving says in A Prayer for Owen Meany, even shit is worth watching if it gives you the opportunity to elaborate on what sort of shit it is.

I came at times to regret my addiction to the crazy-ass crack pipe of American Horror Story, and by the end of the season I was tired: the batshit elements were still fun, but the normal elements—by which I mean such trivialities as plot, dialogue, and characterization—were so consistently clumsy, nonsensical, and borderline offensive that I was sick of talking about them. That American Horror Story got repetitive, seemed to be making up its insane arcs as it went, and never managed to make any sense, was not such a problem. What was a fatal flaw was the fact that—despite the presence of some very good actors—American Horror Story utterly failed to make me care about any of its 7,000 recurring characters, dead or alive. It's hard to invest in a horror story when you just want everyone to die already.

So at the end of last season, I swore I was done. So long, American Horror Story, and thanks for the 12-week binge of sleazy exploitation, gratuitous violence, and raw brain.

But now I'm back. American Horror Story: Asylum is still just an addictive TV drug, but they seem to have stopped pretending it's anything else, and that's refreshing: I prefer my pure TV heroin uncut with baby laxative. If the show manages to give us all the batshit this season with none of the bullshit, this could be a fun ride.

Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum Asylum opens and closes with a framing sequence set in the present day, as an incredibly horny couple of newlyweds—Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum)—stop by the abandoned Briarcliff Manor as part of their "Haunted Honeymoon Tour." Wandering its decaying hallways in between uncomfortable sex acts, Leo and Teresa provide us with a little sexposition: we learn that Briarcliff was built as a sanatorium for tuberculosis victims, and that 46,000 people died there before being shipped out via an underground tunnel called The Death Chute. "We should totally do it in The Death Chute," Teresa says. (If I had a nickel for every time I'd tried that line…) We also learn that, in the 1960s, Briarcliff Manor became the Briarcliff Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where its most famous resident was a legendary serial killer called Bloody Face.

They hear a noise, of course, and Teresa dares Leo to stick his hand through a door flap into a cell where something seems to lurk. "Do it again and I'll blow you," she promises. Leo, apparently, didn't watch last season, or else he would know that fellatio can be a very mixed blessing on American Horror Story: as it is, he should count himself luck that it's only his arm that gets ripped off by an unseen force.

And then we flash back to 1964, and meet the staff and residents of the Briarcliff Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

First up—and perhaps the closest thing Asylum has to a male lead—is Kit Walker (Evan Peters), a gas station attendant who is secretly married to an African-American woman named Alma (Britne Oldford). Last season, American Horror Story never once managed to present a single couple who seemed genuinely happy in love, but Alma and Kit are quite sweet together in the brief scene they get before the sex-and-weirdness engines kick in. When lights start shining in their windows, Kit thinks some of his young Klan-affiliated acquaintances have come to make trouble, but his visitors turn out to be from further away.

Ah yes, alien abduction: that's the horror trope that was missing from last season.

When next we see Kit he is being admitted to Briarcliff, after being arrested as the serial killer Bloody Face, having allegedly killed and flayed three women (including Alma).  Kit, of course, protests his innocence, but his stories of monsters from space mean nothing to the terrifying head of the institution, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). "All monsters are human," Sister Jude tells him. Jude doesn't believe in little green men, nor—despite running a psychiatric institution—does she believe in psychology. "Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin," she says, and holds firm to the belief that madness is simply "an absence of God."

And so we have what seems to be the central thematic conflict of Asylum: the tension between religion and science. This tension is personified—promisingly, if a little too literally—in Sister Jude and her opposite number at Briarcliff, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). Dr. Arden doesn't believe in religious mumbo jumbo: he's a man of science, determined to drag humanity kicking and screaming out of the dark ages Sister Jude represents. (His approach to this seems to include conducting some fairly horrifying experiments on the patients. "I hope you don't mind if I don't use anaesthetic," he says, to Kit. "It interferes with my readings.") Arden is apparently also keeping some monsters locked up in cells, as well as some free-range monsters who are roaming the surrounding woods. (Lange—who won a bevy of awards last season—and Cromwell are both tremendous actors, and it's hard to begrudge either of them the tremendous fun they're having here.)

Though I wouldn't call it deep or sophisticated, the religion/science parallel is a stronger central theme than American Horror Story managed to carve out all last season, and it is fairly cleverly constructed: last season was awash in the old-fashioned supernatural horror and vaguely religious nonsense about the antichrist, but this season begins with science-fiction—the alien abduction—and then plunges back into the supernatural and superstitious to play up the tension between the two approaches. The aliens and the medical experimentation also open up several new avenues of horror to explore, which is a broadening of perspective that AHS desperately needed after last seasons endless parade of ghosts.

Promising, too, is the assemblage of characters this first episode offers, and the asylum setting that offers near infinite possibilities for expanding the cast (and doing anthology stories) in a way that is far more organic and logical than the "Murder House" set up of last season.

Lana (Sarah Paulson), for example, is an investigative journalist determined to do an exposé on Briarcliff. She stumbles upon Sister Jude's simple-minded assistant (and possible daughter?) Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), feeding something in the woods, and learns of the secret tunnel beneath Briarcliff, before being knocked unconscious by one of Arden's creatures pet creatures and ending up in the clutches of Sister Jude. Alas, Sister Jude has somehow sniffed out the fact that Lana is in lesbian relationship with schoolteacher Wendy (Clea Duvall), and uses that fact to blackmail Wendy into having Lana committed. "Chin up," Sister Jude, dripping with menace,  promises her. "We're gonna get you cured."

We also meet Shelley (Chloë Sevigny), a nymphomaniac, who partially fulfills American Horror Story's required quota of sexually promiscuous women and is saddled with some of the worst faux-period dialogue. ("You could shave me bald as a cue ball, and I'd still be the hottest tamale in this joint.") And Kit receives help and sympathy from a mysterious (and far more interesting) patient (Lizzie Brocheré) who—in an exhibit of American Horror Story’s trademark subtlety—is named "Grace." And at the top of the mystery pyramid seems to be Monsignor Timothy Howard (played by Joseph "the Lesser" Fiennes), who has put both Jude and Arden in place for reasons of his own, and has ambitions of becoming the first Anglo-American Pope.

One of my complaints about last season of American Horror Story was that none of its random, Grand Guignol elements ever seemed to mean anything: there was simply no point to any of it. In this regard, too, Asylum seems already to be on a better track. In addition to the heavy-handed science vs. religion theme, there is a secondary, related thread about how America was transforming itself during this time period. (American Horror Story: Asylum doesn't just take place during the same time period as Mad Men, it seems to have the same overall theme.) It's no coincidence that both of our apparent protagonists have relationships that strain against the repressive social mores of the time: to Sister Jude, they are the monsters, threatening the established social order. This is a time-honored way in which horror has satirized and commented upon society, and though it's hardly original I'm glad to see Falchuk and Murphy employ it here.

None of this, as I've said, is very subtle, or very deep, or very believable, but those qualities are not why anyone should tune in to American Horror Story. In fact, the most egregious problems last season came when the show tried to say something serious or meaningful, or tried to present real human emotions in an authentic way. In its first season, American Horror Story seemed like a show awkwardly at war with itself, trying to discuss domestic marital and family dynamics at the same time it was churning out one ridiculous horror twist after another.

Which is why I'm strangely encouraged by this premiere episode: so far, all of Falchuk and Murphy's cheap-but-effective strengths seem to be on display, with few of their weaknesses. Our point-of-view characters (Kit and Lana) are essentially sympathetic, and our villains (Jude and Arden) are evil in interestingly complicated ways, but the show isn't really trying to explore any of them as real people. They are broad enough to fit perfectly as cogs in the insane engine of American Horror Story's relentless plot machine, and just real enough for us to care—a little—when they inevitably get chewed up by that engine's gears.

And honestly, that plot machine is why we come to American Horror Story. The sheer storytelling recklessness on display in this show is what kept me coming back last season, and it's what makes this premiere episode seem so promising: we already have so many storylines and mysteries in play—the Monsignor's plans, Arden's experiments, the aliens, the chip in Kit's body, Bloody Face, Lana's fate, the still-to-be-explored back-stories of other patients on the ward, etc.—that one has to admire Falchuk and Murphy's ability—and audaciousness—in packing so many elements into a single hour. That it all fits together so well here—and all seems like part and parcel of the same larger narrative—is what makes me hope American Horror Story may truly hit its campy stride in this sophomore season.

I was hard on this show last year for haphazard plotting, sleazy exploitation, and inconsistent character work. For the record, I fully expect to be bitching about the same things all through this season, but I'm neither so sophisticated nor so jaded that I can't celebrate the pleasures of a deeply silly, absolutely shameless bit of entertainment. If Falchuk and Murphy can manage to give us all the outrageous, over-the-top plotting of last season, in a slightly tighter, more consistent frame, I could happily make the transition from hate-watching American Horror Story to delighting in it as the guiltiest of pleasures.

I'm not saying I won't feel dirty: I just want to be able to enjoy my weekly wallow in the gutter.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I didn't mention the unusual device AHS is employing, of using much of the same cast from last season to tell an entirely different story this season. Maybe it's because I wasn't particularly attached to any of the characters last season, but I found it much less distracting than I'd imagined, and the show—to its credit—still felt, tonally, like American Horror Story.
  • And most of the actors have benefited greatly from the change: I'm undecided on Jessica Lange's naughty nun, but I would say the other new characters are an improvement over their "Murder House" counterparts. Lily Rabe, in particular, seems to have some acting chops that she didn't get to display last season, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of her. (Not literally, because the gratuitous shot of her bare ass this week was one of the wince-worthy moments that reminded me that yes, this is still American Horror Story, for better and worse.)
  • Speaking of bare asses, it is taking all of my will-power and self-respect not to include a screen shot of Evan Peters's naked posterior, just for the increased web traffic it would bring: I don't see it myself, but—going by the search terms that lead people to my blog—there is a large contingent on the internet that finds the young man extremely attractive.
  • It's a nice touch that the extraordinarily annoying song that Sister Jude plays in the asylum's common room, on infinite repeat, is “Dominique,”  by Jeanine Deckers, otherwise known as "The Singing Nun."
  • My favorite moment in this episode: when the chip Arden extracts from Kit's neck sprouts little insect feet and scurries away. Can we assume "Bloody Face" is simply an alien computer program, designed to conduct experiments in a human host? And can we therefore also assume that anyone could become Bloody Face?
  • My least favorite moment: Adam Levine's character licking his fingers and making sure his wife was ready for a little shock-table coitus. Way to keep it classy, AHS.

Comments

Filed under AMERICAN HORROR STORY, TV REVIEWS

Comments

  1. kmiddleton says:

    Since you mention the function of anthologies (which isn't nearly as fun as the batshit/bullshit distinction you note), you might enjoy the LA Review of Books's take on AHS, which tries to historicize it in some curious ways:
    "The direct forebears to American Horror Story are, of course, the classic anthology dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, descended, often directly, from radio anthologies that had been popular in earlier decades. Dick Powell’s Four Star Playhouse, The Philco Television Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and many others — many of these series were inordinately popular and functioned in similar ways…While American Horror Story is clearly influenced by these series, especially the macabre world of Hitchcock and Twilight, there is a key difference. That is, rather than anthologizing episodes, American Horror Story aims to anthologize seasons. This is more rare in the history of the anthology show. Indeed, one of the few major examples in this particular corner of the genealogy is Masterpiece Theatre, which has been running since 1971…"

    Less Mad Men, more Twilight Zone, do you think? Or is the LARB off its collective rocker? Here's the piece in its entirety, in case you're interested:
    http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1010&fulltext=1