October 18, 2012

THE SKED SEASON PREMIERE REVIEW: “American Horror Story – Asylum”



WHERE WE WERE:  Doesn’t matter.  It wasn’t clear until late in Season 1, but the gimmick of AMERICAN HORROR STORY is that each season will offer a completely new setting, storyline, and group of (mostly doomed) characters, although some of the actors return in new roles.

WHERE WE ARE:  Mostly in 1964 (there’s a modern-day framing story).  Specifically, at and around Briarcliff Manor in Massachusetts, a former tuberculosis clinic where 46,000 people died, and now a insane asylum run by the Catholic church.  Day-to-day operations are handled by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who takes a dim view of sexual activity but also wears red lingerie under her habit and fantasizes about hot sex with Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes).  Her opposite number on the asylum’s medical side is Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), whose rubber gloves are usually soaked in blood (or some other disagreeable liquid), and whose unauthorized experiments anticipate A Clockwork Orange by almost a decade and will probably also resemble The Island of Dr. Moreau once we get a better look at its results.

The big excitement as we meet the denizens of Briarcliff is the imminent arrival of Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who may or may not have been abducted and experimented on by aliens, and who may or may not be Bloody Face, a serial killer known for wearing a mask of human flesh, and whose skinned victims include Kit’s own seemingly beloved African-American wife.  An onlooker with particular interest in Kit is reporter and secret lesbian Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who enters Briarcliff under false pretenses to get a glimpse at Kit, and who finds herself likely to remain for far longer than she’d planned.  Also on hand are nymphomaniac Shelly (Chloe Sevigny), Sister Mary Eunice, who demands that Sister Jude beat her naked buttocks when she’s bad, and likable Grace (Lizzie Brochere), an inmate who claims to be wholly sane and innocent of butchering her entire family.

So yes, we’re back in Ryan Murphy territory.  However, this season of American Horror Story is, for all its florid excess, seemingly more straightforward and comprehensible than Season 1, perhaps because the script for its introduction isn’t by Murphy or his writing partner Brad Falchuk, but rather by Executive Producer Tim Minear, a veteran fantasy-horror writer/producer with roots in the Joss Whedon school of Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.  Although comprehensibility and some modicum of narrative logic are generally good things, here it’s also true that the sheer unrestrained perversity and disregard for sense of Season 1 were part of its nutjob appeal.  Here, apart from the extraterrestrial part of the story, the pieces actually seem to fit together, and it will take a few episodes to decide whether that’s a welcome thing on the whole.

Not that anyone will confuse Asylum with the relative lucidity of, say, The Walking Dead.  Lange won an Emmy for her master class in hamminess in Season 1, and this time she has a Boston accent to add to her repertoire, while Bradley Buecker’s direction continues to include plenty of shock cuts, swaying camerawork and barely-lit corridors and rooms where just about anything can leap out.  This time, though, in keeping with the setting, the overall feel is more of a 1960s horror movie, albeit with more sex and gore.  Even the soundtrack of the first episode, unless my ears were mistaken, was largely made up of Pino Donaggio’s classic score for Carrie, along with what may have been some selections from The Shining.

Season 1 of American Horror Story was as crazy as anything mainstream American TV has seen in decades, and against all odds, it worked as the guiltiest of pleasures.  Can the show repeat that success with so many new elements?  Certainly it’s off to a great start in the ratings, setting a series record with last night’s premiere, demonstrating yet again the bottomless American hunger for horror (Paranormal Activity 4 will certainly sweep this weekend’s boxoffice as well).  Asylum so far isn’t as terrifying as Murphy’s new sitcom The New Normal, but it’s still early.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."