American Horror Story – Asylum

I liked to be scared. Not in the “Oh my God I lost my child at the mall” variety, but the kind of thrills and chills that you can find either in the movie theater or on a rollercoaster. Controlled fear. Fear that isn’t really real.

I’m not sure when my fascination with scary stuff first started. Growing up, I didn’t watch a lot of the horror movies that were popular at the time. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen any of the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movies in their entirety (I know I’ve seen at least part of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday because my friend’s mom is in it). Hell, I was the kid that was freaked out by the music from Unsolved Mysteries. But somewhere along the line I picked up a taste for terror and would frequently have scary movie marathons when I was in high school. By the time I was in grad school, I had graduated to Asian horror movies, which are legitimately odd and twisted in the best way possible. A lot of these films have been remade for American audiences – The Ring is probably the most famous – but the originals have a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them a whole different animal.

There are more scary movies out there than you could shake stick at, but there are very few scary television shows. There are obvious reasons for that – it is difficult to maintain the same level of fear week to week. Horror movies tend to have pretty short running times, because you can only hold a mood for so long before it is no longer effective. Horror tends to be all about the buildup – the moments of dread when you anticipate something terrible is going to happen. In my mind, the best scary movies are more subtle and keep you in this state of expectation, slowly building and amping up the fear. Television, with its commercial breaks, is not the best medium for this atmosphere. Most television shows that dabble in thrills and fear, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Tales from the Crypt, are anthologies of stand-alone stories that do not carry over to the following week. Even with this adjustment, horror television shows have been few and far between recently.

Therefore, last year when FX announced that they were launching a new show called American Horror Story, I was, to say the least, intrigued . I generally am pretty bullish on FX programs – they are edgier and take more risks than most of the shows that you find on basic cable. Their programing director and I seem to have the same sensibilities. If this was on another network, I may not have been as willing to break my rule about not getting sucked into a new show for fear of cancellation. But FX has a good track record with me and has shorter seasons than the major networks (typically 13 episodes) so I was more open to taking a calculated risk. They show also starred Connie Britton, who I adore from her days as Tami “y’all” Taylor on Friday Night Lights. So I put aside my concerns (and my general mistrust of Ryan Murphy) and sat down to watch the pilot.

About the point that Britton has sex with a mystery man in a rubber S&M outfit, I decided I was all in.

American Horror Story was like nothing I’d seen on television. It was discombobulating and crazy and reveled in its weirdness. It was a show where legitimately anything could happen; the only limits where those that were imposed by the FCC, and I’m not even 100% sure that was a hard limit. When the episode ended, you weren’t exactly sure what you had just seen or if it even made all that much sense. You felt like you had just woken from a dream and you had to piece together all the insanity you had witnessed. I’m not really joking when I say that afterward, I felt a little exhausted. This isn’t a show you can watch while doing other things – look away for a second and you’ll miss something. Even if the show does have your full attention, it doesn’t necessarily all make sense.

Now, all this is not to say that this is good television. This show is nowhere near the level of Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire. Sometimes because you are so confused by what is going on it takes you a few days to realize that the show has a lot of faults. But though I wouldn’t qualify American Horror Story as quality television, I would say it is absolutely entertaining. And sometimes that is all that you are looking for. The show is a great water cooler show; after each episode, you want to talk to other people about it, even if it is just to say “did you see that?” American Horror Story is bat-shit crazy, but a fun type of bat-shit crazy.

The show returned last night for its second season and continues to break the mold of what we expect from television shows. The first season of American Horror Story was one contained story that followed the Harmon family and their surreal experiences living in the “Murder House.” The second season wipes the slate clean and deigns to tell a whole different story; however, many of the cast of the first season has returned, playing totally different characters. It’s a smart move on Murphy’s part – when you have the magic that is Jessica Lange, you hold on to it – and adds an interesting wrinkle for the series. It also make it easy for people who didn’t watch the first season to jump in without feeling that they missed something.

I gathered with some AHS fans last night – B. K and show newcomer C, who probably thought we were nuts – to watch the season premiere. This year the series focuses on the mysterious goings on at a Massachusetts asylum called Briarcliff Manor. Lange is the nun in charge of running Briarcliff and she makes Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale. The story jumps back in forth in time; the viewer witnesses the asylum when it was open in the 1960s as well as following a present day couple (Maroon 5 and The Voice’s Adam Levine and wife of Channing, Jenna Dewan Tatum ) who are exploring the now abandoned asylum because that’s how they get their kicks. There’s a serial killer, aliens, a sketchy doctor (James Cromwell) and some nun on Monsignor action. The show has it all.

I took some notes as we watched the show to gauge our reaction in real time (contains some mild spoilers):

  • Who spends their honeymoon visiting haunted locations?
  • Yeah – we get our first glimpse of Adam Levine less than a minute into the show.
  • First weird sex act – less than five minutes in. For AHS, that’s right on schedule.
  • I’m glad that they kept the music for the credits, though they changed the creepy scenes to reflect the new location. I will forever be a fan of the font that they use. Newbie C would later cite the music as his favorite part.
  • Like there isn’t enough going on in this show, Murphy feels the need to make interracial marriage in the 1960s an issue to explore.
  • It took less than 15 minutes for the first person in our group to utter “I’m confused.” That’s actually longer than I expected.
  • Aliens? This is a new direction.
  • Approximately 17 minutes in and we have another Ryan Murphy staple – creepy disabled person.
  • Yay – Chloe Sevigny makes her first appearance. I forgot that they added her to the cast. She’ll pretty much up for anything – which you know if you sat through the abomination that was The Brown Bunny – so she should fit right in on this show.
  • Apropos of nothing – the song playing in the common room was “Dominique” by The Singing Nun, which was pretty popular in the early 60s. I only know this because my French name in my middle school French class was Dominique and the teacher used to sing it to me a lot.
  • Hey – that’s Kelly Ripa’s husband!
  • I’m calling it now – at some point in this show, someone is going to have sex with a corpse. Just a hunch.
  • Jessica Lange is doing a pretty decent Boston accent. She just needs to work in a “Yankees suck” at some point and she’ll have nailed it.
  • More social commentary – the gay couple on the show refer multiple times to their lack of rights/legal standing. Another tried and true Murphy-ism
  • At one point, I thought we’d wandered into a Madonna video – a nun in red lingerie fantasying about a priest sounds like something right out of “Like a Prayer.”
  • I don’t know what is wandering around in the woods, but it’s not good
  • I’m not one to criticize, but couldn’t they have come up with a more terrifying name for the serial killer other than Bloody Face. That sounds almost cute.
  • Whoa – that scene with Cromwell and AHS favorite Evan Peters was what would happen if Minority Report and A Clockwork Orange had a baby.
  • Hooray! A character used one of my trademark words (shenanigans)! Everybody drink.

And that’s a wrap. The second season is definitely off to an interesting start, though some of the shock value has worn off from the first season. When you first watch the show, you are amazed at all the insanity; now it’s expected. Still bat-shit crazy, but not quite as surprising. We all generally enjoyed the premiere and I look forward to Zachary Quinto making his first appearance this season. Should be a fun, if not bizarre, trip that we’re on.

American Horror Story airs Wednesdays at 10 pm ET on FX. If you are a regular viewer of the show, you may want to check out some fun episode recaps at Grantland.com and Vulture.com.

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One thought on “American Horror Story – Asylum

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