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American Horror Story: Asylum

American Horror Story: Asylum

What She said:

She

There are television shows out there that I watch and love to talk about—case in point, Downton Abbey.  American Horror Story is not one of those shows.   Yes, I watch it.  But the content is so graphic, so twisted, and so psychologically disturbed that I often wonder if creator, Ryan Murphy, and the show’s writers are certifiable.  Then I start to wonder how sane I am, if I’m enjoying watching all this f-d up drama. 

If you thought the first season of American Horror Story was messed up, brace yourself for season 2 aka Asylum.  There are some familiar acting faces back in the fold—Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Zachary Quinto, and Dylan McDermott.  But each of these people have been transformed.  When I heard that so many from season 1 were coming back for a second round, I admit I was somewhat skeptical, wondering how they could make it work with the audience if they’re playing different characters.  But you’ll quickly forget that their original personas ever existed.

American Horror Story: Asylum

I’m going to try my best to explain the plotline of the show but so much happens in Asylum that it’s nearly impossible.  Here’s the old college try: So, we are introduced to Briarcliff Mental Institution, a Catholic Church-run asylum for the mentally unhinged.  The place is run by Sister Jude (Lange) and Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes), with Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) on staff as a physician and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) helping out.  Sister Jude seems absolutely evil, unjust, and torturous.  She pretty much hates all of the patients and puts them through shock therapy and all kinds of mistreatment in an effort to keep them in line and disciplined.  Monsignor Timothy is clueless for the most part, just going along with everything so that the place will be successful and he can move up the ranks within the church.  He’ll pretty much stop at nothing to become Pope.  Dr. Arden, well, he’s a very special gem.  It’s very quickly apparent that he abuses patients, often performing controversial experiments on them for the name of science.  He’s a big fan of injecting strange fluids into patients so that he can transform them into monsters.  Dr. Arden also has his own dungeon-type area within the building, just to add to his creepy persona.  Sister Mary Eunice seems pretty harmless at the outset, but becomes possessed by the devil and turns bad.  She dictates a lot of what goes down at the hospital during the second half of the season.

Then we have the patients.  Peters plays Kit Walker, a husband who is or maybe isn’t wrongly accused of killing his wife.  He seems to think that aliens did it, and otherwise seems pretty sane.  Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) is a female journalist who is doing a story on the mental hospital.  She ends up being admitted and held captive against her will once it’s discovered that she’s a lesbian.  Her lover back home is also murdered.  There’s also Grace (Lizzie Brochére) who seems like a normal girl in her early 20s, but who has been accused of murdering her family.  Part of the mystery is figuring out if she’s actually guilty, until it’s finally revealed to you.  Of course, there are also other recurring characters in the asylum, but the aforementioned are the big players.

American Horror Story: Asylum

And then we have the glue that binds it all together, Dr. Oliver Thredson (Quinto).  He’s a seemingly mild-mannered psychiatrist with a dark side.  He isn’t a full time staffer at Briarcliff, but comes around here and there to help out the patients.  He takes a particular interest to Kit and Lana, whom he spends a lot of time with.  I’m not going to give away too much about him, but know that he’s important to the overarching storyline of the season.

I’ve mainly just explained the basics of the characters.  The plot for the season is all over the place.  One minute Sister Jude is a perpetrator, then she’s a victim.  There’s devil possession, aliens dropping by, zombie-like creatures scampering out in the yard, and someone may be a former Nazi.  It’s a lot to stuff in 13 episodes, but we all know that Ryan Murphy likes to keep things interesting, and to him, more is better.  And no, not all of the loose ends get tied up.  Just like my major complaint from season one, not everything here made logical sense, and I was often left asking, “Okay, but why?”  The plus side is that most mysteries of this season are revealed.  The downside is that they’re often left unexplained.

Asylum is largely a character study.  I really grew to enjoy watching the characters develop and make decisions.  So many of the characters did a 180 during the season.  You may sympathize for them for a while, and then are quickly driven the other direction.  Practically every character is heavily flawed as well.  I think that’s why they can change personas so much.  That, and everyone is just a little crazy (even if they’re not legally considered as such). 

This show is shot beautifully—dark, dramatic, and moody.  It looks like a movie, which makes me wonder why other shows are so poorly done by comparison.  Where story lacks, the visuals of this show try to make up for it.  And it’s that cinematography that helps the viewer to feel like they’re really there with the characters at Briarcliff.

For the most part, I enjoyed Asylum.  As I said, like season 1 there were some deficiencies in the plot and writing.  But if you let that stuff slide and enjoy the show for all the disgusting, borderline sacrilegious horror it provides, then you’ll find some enjoyment in it.  You’ve got to be prepared for something that will push the boundaries of what you can watch.  I definitely had to turn away a couple of times, and there were moments when I asked myself why I was even watching it.  But I admit that I got sucked in by all the keyed up drama and ended up enjoying Asylum overall.

Thumbs mostly up.

What He said:

He

TV shows can be challenging to review, because you want to give the reader enough to whet their appetite, but you don’t want to assume they’ve already seen the show.  It’s that way with movies too, but TV shows are a little different. They have more to work with. The storylines are longer, characters more developed, and there is generally just more of everything. A lot happens. It’s hard to have so much to work with and not talk about it. So, I’ve decided to tell this review by describing the characters.  

Briarcliff Mental Institution is an awful place. There’s no getting beating around the bush. The horrors that go on behind those walls are the stuff of nightmares; and both patient and staff alike contribute to the madness.

Briarcliff is essentially run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). Sure, the Monsignor (more on him later) is technically in charge, but he lets her run the show. I don’t think she has had any formal training in working with the mentally ill, but sure has a real strong desire to “help” them. Her way of “curing” people is something straight out of an old school nun’s playbook. She has an entire cabinet filled with all kinds of whips, canes, and other devices meant to bring the pain. She is disgusted by homosexuality, promiscuity, and pretty much anything or anyone she views as being sinful (whether the patient can help it or not). She views them as weaknesses that can be beaten out and takes great pleasure in giving the patients their medicine.  

Speaking of her victims – err I mean patients – we quickly find out Sister Jude has virtually no limits. Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) is an ambitious reporter who is looking to make a name for herself. She is sick of writing puff pieces about recipes and similar stuff. She decides to sneak into Briarcliff one day and hopes to write a piece on the horrible conditions in which the patients are forced to live. What she didn’t count on was the wicked sister Jude. Annoyed with Lana’s snooping around, Jude decides to teach Lana a lesson. She finds a way to get Lana committed. Oh and did I mention Lana is a lesbian? Considering Sister Jude’s stance on gay rights, this is not good news for Lana. Lana finds out about the horrors inside Briarcliff in ways she never imagined.

Around the same time, notorious serial killer, Kit Walker, is being admitted to Briarcliff for examination. Kit (Evan Peters) is to be tested to see whether he is fit to stand trial. The outlook doesn’t look so good for him. If he is deemed sane, it’s likely he’ll get the death penalty. He’s accused of killing his wife and several other women. He has been nicknamed Bloody Face, because he is accused of not only killing these women, but cutting their skin off their faces as well. If he’s determined to be insane, he gets to spend the rest of his life in Briarcliff, so it is a no win situation for Kit. Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the best part. Naturally, he says he is innocent, but his alibi is a good one. He says that creatures from outer space did it. That’s right, aliens came down to Earth just to frame him for murder. He says he couldn’t have done it because they abducted him at the time of his wife’s murder.

American Horror Story: Asylum

If you think Sister Jude is bad, wait until you meet Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Dr. Arden is a former Nazi who has managed to escape persecution and is hiding out in Briarcliff. He also uses Briarcliff as a way to continue his research. You know how movies and other forms of pop culture portray Nazis being into some crazy religious, scientific, and occult related activities? American Horror Story: Asylum continues that trend. Dr. Arden isn’t just hiding out in Briarcliff, he’s using it as a means to experiment on the patients.

Speaking of which, Dr. Arden is able to do what he does – despite Sister Jude gunning for him – because the Monsignor has a habit of ignoring the ugly side of Briarcliff. Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) is very ambitious. In fact, he hopes to become pope one day. He will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, because he thinks it is all for the greater good. Dr. Arden has somehow managed to convince the Monsignor that his work can one day benefit humanity and having the career aspirations he does, the Monsignor sees this as a tremendous opportunity.

Not to be forgotten is Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto). He is initially brought in to examine Kit’s mental state, but seems take up the cause of fighting for better conditions for the residents of Briarcliff. He seems like a pretty progressive guy and objects to the archaic way the patients are treated. In addition to Kit, he also seems to take a special interest in Lana, whom he promises to help escape.

American Horror Story: Asylum

Another one of the staff members is Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). She is the exact opposite of Sister Jude, but is also terrified of Jude, so she reluctantly goes along with her approach to treating mentally health. We don’t get to know her for very long before she becomes possessed by a spirit that claims to be the Devil himself. Oh yeah, on top of everything else, they go there.

Last but not least is Grace (Lizzie Brocheré). Grace has been committed to Briarcliff because she killed her family. She takes a liking to Kit from the second he walks in the door. She doesn’t seem to care whether he actually killed his wife (and the other women) or not. She doesn’t care if Kit or men from outer space killed his wife, she is simply drawn to him. She also forms a bond with Lana, which is tricky considering Lana thinks Kit is as guilty as they come. Their friendship is formed primarily over escape attempts, but things get tense when Grace informs Lana she wants to bring Kit along.

I’ve seen enough of Ryan Murphy’s work to know that he seems  to think more is better. That’s simply not true. I thought season 1 of Glee was surprisingly entertaining. I only initially tuned in because I like Jane Lynch, but ended up enjoying the show. After the first season though, it was all downhill. Murphy simply didn’t know when to stop. He just kept adding twists, drama, new characters, and even got to the point where he’d simply undo the character growth he developed in season 1. American Horror Story is very similar, but it simply works better in this situation. Maybe because its horror, monsters, evil spirits, Nazis, serial killers, aliens, and everything else can all work in the same show. It also helps that it’s a very well-acted and shot show. The “more” factor suddenly becomes less of an issue because of how much better it is presented. It’s more polished and believable.

The other enjoyable part of this series is just how disturbing it is. It’s not the “jump out and scare you” kind of horror, but instead aims to make your skin crawl, which it does. It’s dark as hell, but done in a way that can be kind of funny.  You often find yourself saying, “Did they just….yeah they did.” Once you get over the initial shock, you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s one of the few cases where I’d say shock value – for the sake of it – actually works. The show embraces it so much, you have to wonder if there is something seriously wrong with the writers.

Rating: Thumbs up. Not as good as season 1, but still pretty damn entertaining. It's nice to have a horror show on TV that's good (The Walking Dead is terribly overrated).

This review was written for your reading pleasure on February 13, 2013.