Thursday, October 18, 2012

Checking In: American Horror Story Asylum Premiere


American Horror Story: Asylum (Wednesdays at 10:00 on FX)

I wasn't the biggest fan of the first season of FX's series American Horror Story. I found it busy, contrived, overrated, bloated, and pompous. But it did have some clever moments and some great performances, so I watched the whole season. I, like everyone else, was shocked by the finale when the entire Harmon family bit the dust and the cycle of Murder House started all over again. Where does one go from there? Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk decided to completely reboot the series and tell an entirely new story rather than continue in the same haunted house genre, and now we have American Horror Story: Asylum.

Just for how gutsy a move it was to totally shift gears and tell a brand new story with brand new characters and only some of the same actors, I give the series a lot of credit. That's a brave, totally unheard of move that has the possibility of paying off in spades. The horror genre contains many types of films, so there's a lot of material out there to touch upon; where season one focused mostly on the haunted house and ghost horror stories, both timeless and enduring tales, season two is a period piece focusing on religious, medical and extraterrestrial horror stories popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It's a stark contrast to the accessibility of the first season, but there are many things the two seasons have in common, chief among which is the creators' tendency to throw every idea they have into one episode and see what works.

At American Horror Story's core, that's what has always been the main problem: it does too much. There are too many characters, too many plot twists, too many random jump scares, too many film references, too many social issues being addressed, etc. That theme has carried over into Asylum, which has all the same problems as the first season. The premiere works so hard to introduce so many characters and plots in such a short amount of time that my head was spinning twenty minutes in. It doesn't help that we're watching events unfold in two different timelines either. In the present we meet a horndog couple known only as the Lovers, one a photographer (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) and one a horror freak (Jenna Dewan Tatum, Step Up), who get off by having sex in haunted placed. They end up at Briarcliff, a sanitarium for the criminally insane. Levine's character ends up biting off a little more than he can chew, and we are drawn back into the past (1964, to be exact) to learn the history of Briarcliff. It's run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), under the eye of a hot Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes) whom Sr. Jude often sexually fantasizes about. Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) tricks her way into Briarcliff to get a story on the newest inmate: Kit Walker (Evan Peters), AKA Bloody Face, a man accused of skinning women alive.

There are a ton of other characters introduced, including a large group of inmates and their staff, from a nymphomaniac (Chloe Sevigny) to the introduction of yet another "special needs" character in Pepper, a woman suffering from microcephaly (you'll recall last season featured a major arc for a character with down syndrome). There's the sadistic Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) and Sr. Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), who is playing both sides of the faith/science debate by catering to both the doctor and Sr. Jude.

Subtlety has never been one of Murphy's strong suits, and that remains an issue in Asylum. So much happens in this short introduction that it's hard to actually recount everything. There's Levine's dismemberment in the first five or so minutes, Kit's alien encounter, the monsters in the woods created by Dr. Arden, Lana's commitment to the asylum, Sr. Jude's sexual fantasies, the Lovers' attack by a present-day Bloody Face, and so much more. That's not even counting the social issues Murphy and his team, led by this episode's writer Tim Minear, tries to throw at the audience: interracial marriage, homosexuality, and the coexistence of science and religion. It's a jumbled mess of ideas, scattered images, crazy editing, a loud score, and a myriad of characters. The audience is bashed over the head with all of these elements relentlessly. The sad thing is, I would still be mostly on board if it weren't for the introduction of the alien subplot, in which Kit was abducted and implanted with some type of chip (which Dr. Arden later removes, and it sprouts legs and runs away... yes, really), while his wife and a number of other women were killed. This happens fairly early in the episode and sets a tone of ridiculousness for the remainder of the hour; it's so out of place that it feels like a joke. And perhaps it is. Perhaps the whole alien abduction is in Kit's mind, but in that case then it feels like an unnecessary way of confusing and annoying the audience. But it's the prime example in "Welcome to Briarcliff" of the staff's inability to edit themselves or be anything less than over-the-top and in-your-face.

Another problem Asylum has is that it borrows very heavily from itself, giving it a sense of pomposity. They are separate stories in separate locations and times, but so many elements carry over that at times it feels like we're seeing the same thing happen again: Pepper = Addie; Bloody Face = Rubber Man; Sr. Jude's fantasies recall Alexandra Breckenridge's Moira (and so does Chloe Sevigny's character); Sr. Mary Eunice = Vivien; etc. I know this was likely intentional, to tie the second season to the first so as not to imply that Asylum is a wholly new show, especially since so many actors returned to the series in new roles. But it gives everything a sense of deja-vu, and a feeling that the creators are smirking and saying, "See how clever we are?" And unlike its predecessor and despite having so many elements, Asylum moves terribly slowly. I just kept waiting for the next shoe to drop, because you know there's a twist coming. And in this case, the twist wasn't all that hard to see coming: Lana's institutionalization was a given from the moment she crossed Sr. Jude in her first scene.

On the flip side, the strength of Asylum is in its performances, much like it was in season one. Jessica Lange is still the best thing about the show, though she's playing a more forward version of the same character she played last season: a huge bitch with power. She's wonderful, playing up the good/evil contradiction of her character and letting it slide into camp on occasion, which is great considering how campy horror movies typically are. Evan Peters is shockingly good as Kit, after a rather strained performance from him as Tate last season. Sarah Paulson already has more to do in this one episode than she did in the entirety of season one, and she's the anchor of the show so far: the character who is innocent and part of both worlds (the asylum and the outside). Clea Duvall does strong work as her romantic partner, especially when she goes toe-to-toe with Jessica Lange at the episode's end. I was looking forward to seeing Zachary Quinto, one of the best parts of last season, but his character will not be introduced until next week. But all around, everyone did an admirable job, even Adam Levine in his acting debut. Granted, he's probably played characters with a bigger range in his music videos, but he doesn't embarrass himself so that's good.

By the time the premiere of Asylum ended, I realized I was having a really strong negative reaction. This season was an opportunity to fix the problems of season one, namely the abundance of ideas that don't always work. But Murphy and Falchuk didn't do that. In fact, they made themselves more problems by introducing such a huge cast of characters right off the bat. The strengths of the previous season are still the strengths of the current one: the genuine creepiness of the cinematography and art direction, and the wonderful cast led by Lange. But it looks to be more of the same, only messier and less focused if the staff doesn't get their act together and start letting the audience think for themselves.

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