Warning: Contains spoilers for this episode. And naked butts.
According to available sources, American Horror Story executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are both in their 40s. James Wong, who wrote "Tricks and Treats"—this second episode of American Horror Story: Asylum—is in his 50s. Jessica Lange and James Cromwell are both veteran actors, in their 60s and 70s, respectively, and—with the exception of some trick-or-treaters, and the little girl that Sister Jude once turned into a reluctant hood ornament—I have to assume the rest of the cast are all grown-ups as well.
So here's my question: why does nearly every episode of American Horror Story feel like it was made by a bunch of horny and hyperactive teen-age boys?
The latest episode is no exception: it offers nymphomaniacs and prostitutes, kinky bondage and naughty bath-time, and so many bare asses that you'd think the bare ass had just been invented. The title of this episode makes little sense in relation to the story, so I can only assume it refers to the group of uncredited teenage boys who got sugared up on Halloween candy and collaborated on this hour of pervy, disjointed, short-attention-span theater, before dying of hyperglycemia and excessive masturbation.
I realize that complaining about such things in relation to American Horror Story is like complaining about the preponderance of profanity on Deadwood: if you can't accept it, you might as well not watch at all. And with AHS, the random, sleazy, gratuitous elements are not only par for the course, they actually constitute the majority of the show's questionable charm. See, I like the batshit elements: the lack of restraint, the shock value, the willingness to go totally over the top. I just wish it all made a little more sense, and was a little less ham-fisted and schlocky. Is that so much to ask?
I get that American Horror Story: Asylum is trying to say something about the sexual revolution and the radical expansion of what was socially acceptable that happened during this time period, and I applaud the effort. We see this theme explored through Kit (Evan Peters) and his interracial marriage; through the lesbian relationship between Lana (Sarah Paulson) and Wendy (Clea Duvall); and through comments dropped by our new character, Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), who criticizes Briarcliff for still treating homosexuality with electric shock. (Thredson's sexuality has not yet been addressed, but it would not surprise me if he turns out to be gay.) We even see it in the kinky proclivities of Dr. Arden (James Cromwell)—who has what may (or may not) be a harmless penchant for prostitutes and bondage—and in Sister Jude herself, who we discover was once a drunken lounge-singer and "the town pump."
One of the things the first series of AHS lacked was a coherent thematic thread, and in this regard Asylum is already a much stronger, tighter concept. The tension between the oppressive conservatism of the Catholic Church and the changing social mores of the time is an excellent foundation for the show's kinky, guilt-infested sensibility, and the larger theme of our nation's dark history with racial and sexual oppression provides perfect fodder for a season about American horror. After all, if you really want to scare me, racism, sexual repression, and religious conservativism are the way to go.
I just wish—having tackled such a promising theme—it was handled a little more maturely. Take, for example, Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), who is—so far—my least favorite character in Asylum. The points she makes about how female sexuality was treated, for centuries, as a mental health disorder, are entirely valid and worthy; so, too, is pointing out that—until fairly recently—a man could have his wife committed for virtually any reason. But does she have to be such a clumsy male-fantasy figure? Does she have to talk like the gun moll in a '50s B-movie? Most of all, does she have to be such a nympho that she totally undermines the otherwise valid points that she's making? (I have never been a huge fan of Ms. Sevigny's work—is anyone?—but any actress would be hard pressed to make Shelley's dialogue work. "Want to see my candy apple? C'mon, Doc, bend me over a bread rack and pound me into shape.")
Other elements this week worked better for me, but the scattergun plotting of American Horror Story means that even the things that are working get short-shrift. The exorcism at the center of this episode, for example, could have been very effective: I mean, c'mon, with all these nuns, priests, and nutbags wandering around, an exorcism episode should have been a slam-dunk. Unfortunately, AHS doesn't take enough time to do anything particularly interesting with it, so it comes off as just a truncated, less imaginative version of The Exorcist. Why not dedicate the bulk of the episode to Jed (Devon Graye) and the demon inside him? Why not let us get to know the young man as a normal young man for a few minutes, so we care one way or another whether he lives or dies? Why not let the demon inside him really get inside the heads of our regulars, instead of just writhing in bed, shouting profanities, and dropping a few dirty secrets about Sister Jude? (And for the love of God, why cast the brilliant Robin Weigert in the role of Jed's mother, and then not give her anything to do? With W. Earl Brown's silly appearance last season, and the great Ian McShane due in town later this season, AHS is becoming the place where the stars of Deadwood go to waste their considerable talents.)
The best thing to come out of the otherwise derivative exorcism storyline is the fact that it's not over: the demon didn't die with young Jed, but—unbeknownst to everyone else—moved into sweet, innocent, dim Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). Rabe has been my most pleasant surprise this season of AHS: she made zero impression last season (where she was stuck in a thankless role as the wife of crazed vivisectionist Dr. Charles Montgomery), but in just two episodes she has proven she can more than hold her own in the company of actors like Lange and Cromwell. I liked the Red Riding Hood/Snow White/Eve imagery of Mary Eunice meeting Arden in the woods for an illicit candy apple, and I'm excited at the prospect of seeing the demon—Satan?—wreaking havoc from behind sweet Mary Eunice's guileless face.
Meanwhile, mysterious pixie French girl Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) remains a plot device, not a character: Brocheré is an intriguing actress, and this episode misses no opportunity to show off her considerable physical charms, but Grace remains undefined and her motivations remain decidedly unclear. This episode, she befriends Lana—in a scene the creative team just couldn't resist staging in the water therapy room, so both actresses could be naked—and the two discuss escaping through The Death Chute.
But when the opportunity arises, Grace won't leave without Kit, and Lana won't leave with Kit: in both cases, the reasons for each woman's position are unclear. How does Grace know Kit is a good guy? Why is Lana so sure Kit is evil? My guess is that Grace has some supernatural aid in her decision-making—she's either psychic or (God forbid) an angel—but Lana's willingness to miss out on her own chance for escape, just to keep Kit locked up, is completely unmotivated.
I do like the way Sister Jude seizes on this opportunity to turn Grace and Kit against Lana: will we see Lana—stripped of all other human contact—slowly turning into an acolyte of Sister Jude? Credit where credit is due: it's not subtle, but I am enjoying the way AHS is keeping us off-center in regards to how we feel about most characters. Lana came in as a wholly sympathetic character, but she could easily become a villain; Kit is presumably our hero, but I'd bet money that he really did kill those women, probably while under the control of his alien implant; Jude and Arden were established as monsters, but both are evidencing enough human traits—and, in Jude's case, some genuine care for other people—that make them complicated in interesting ways.
I just wish the show could slow down long enough to really milk this considerable potential. What we're seeing here, in my opinion, is a show that can't quite decide whether it wants to be an anthology series or an ongoing story, and so we're getting an awkward marriage of the two that does justice to neither. I wouldn't mind if the producers just committed to one or the other on an episode-by-episode basis, but trying to do both simultaneously results in the narrative incoherence exhibited here. (Again, the exorcism could have been a whole episode, and instead reads like a throwaway. And there are far too many things in this episode that don't belong there at all, except to serve the overall story arch, such as the framing sequence set in the present day and the arrival of Bloody Face at Wendy's door.)
Sigh. I ask too much, I know: I enjoy the crazy-ass, batshit, random elements of American Horror Story, but I wish they were used with a little more purpose and planning. It just seems to me that the self-contained, 12-episode season should allow for a tighter, more coherent structural integrity, but instead Falchuk and Murphy seem like they are in such a hurry to get all their elements in motion that they're losing the impact of the ones that could really work. There's a lot of potential here—and it's better than last season—but the show still lacks focus: it's too easily distracted by naked asses and kinky shocks. Even if the entire mission statement of the show is to be scary, American Horror Story forgets that fear is a product of anticipation and dread: if you just fling things at our screens willy-nilly, none of them are going to register as they should.
Slow down, boys: your show is insane enough that it can only benefit from a little patience, a little selective editing, and a little restraint.
And now a few choice examples of the sensitive, erudite dialogue of American Horror Story:
- Wendy, giving the least effective argument ever for not being slaughtered by a serial killer: "I'm a schoolteacher. The children, they won't understand!"
- Shelley, mastering the single entendre: "Hey sister, I have a cucumber in my room, but not because I was hungry."
- Jude, to Lana: "Who would you like to call, Ms. Winters? The American Civil Lesbians Union"?
- Jude, to Arden. "I prayed about it, when I wasn't praying for you to find a halfway decent haberdasher."
- Jude, touting her credentials to the parents of a possessed boy: "I've had great success in curbing the chronic masturbator."
- In an exchange that sums up the problems with AHS's plotting in a vulgar nutshell, Arden tells his prostitute that he finds anticipation the most erotic part. "I find a big cock even more erotic," she replies.
- Arden, to the same prostitute, a little later: "Show me your mossy bank."
- Demon Jed, to Jude: "It drives you crazy, doesn't it? To be the smartest person in the room, with no real power because of that smelly clam between your legs."
Next: Episode 2×03, "Nor'easter"