TV Review - American Horror Story: Asylum

Technically, this is a new series, a mini-series, but in reality, this is season two of what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk started last year. Yes, the setting and characters are different, but a few of the actors are the same and the tone and style are pretty much similar. The show is creepy and bizarre. It's also highly sexual, which makes it on par with Murphy's previous series like Nip/Tuck.

The show takes place in 1964 at an asylum for the criminally insane called Briarcliff Manor. A very strict nun named Sister Jude, played by Emmy-winner Jessica Lange, runs the asylum with an iron fist. Sister Jude doesn't recognize mental illness in scientific terms. She sees it all as sin. Joseph Fiennes plays Monsignor Timothy Howard, a priest who oversees the asylum and occasionally clashes with Sister Jude on the scientific push. Monsignor allows Dr. Arthur Arden, played by James Cromwell, to work at the asylum. Arden's lab has free license to experiment on humans. All the while, a lesbian reporter goes undercover in the asylum to learn about a serial killer but she becomes trapped there.

Sarah Paulson plays Lana Winters, the lesbian reporter. She's in love with a closeted teacher, played by Clea DuVall. To give you a sense of the sexuality here, Lana undergoes conversion therapy. Dr. Oliver Thredson, played by Zachary Quinto, administers it, but Thredson is a court-appointed psychiatrist who at first objects to electroshock to treat homosexuality, but later he decides to help Lana suppress her homosexuality in other ways. He brings in a male model in a robe who drops the robe and stands totally nude in front of Lana. Thredson then asks Lana to grab the model's genitalia while she masturbates and this is supposed to help her, yet it only makes her literally vomit.

This scene occurs in the fourth episode and there is a calmness and steadiness to the camerawork and editing. This is in contrast to the first episode and second where the camerawork and editing are hyperactive, constantly whipping around with many quick cuts. It's annoying but the show does settle into its own visual rhythm. It took until the fourth episode until I became comfortable with that visual rhythm. Yet, the problem with the first season or the previous mini-series persists in this one, which indicates a hyperactivity not only in the show's physical construction, but in other areas as well.

Murphy either suffers from ADHD or he's just a man who bores easily. It's not enough that this season is just one thing. Murphy insists that it be a different thing every week or even a different thing moment to moment. This has nothing to do with the show's pacing. It's free to move along at any speed it wishes, even if that speed is fast. It's also fine that the show is a kind of broader anthology with multiple storylines, but it feels as if none of it has any cohesion.

Murphy and Falchuk's writers did solve one massive plothole in the first season, which could have persisted with the characters this season. In the first season, the common complaint for anything that happened was why don't the people simply leave. The entire first season just like this second season all occurs in one location. In the first season, I kept asking why don't the people just leave that location, and, week after week, I became less satisfied with the answer because there wasn't one. In this second season, I'm not asking that question because this time there is an answer. The asylum is like a prison and all the people are basically captives.

Within this framework, we run the gambit of all kinds of horror scenarios. We get a little Halloween, a little The Exorcist and a storyline involving revisionist history of Anne Frank. Either it's the most brilliant thing ever or the most preposterous. I'm not sure. Until I am sure, I guess I'll just have to take solace in repressed lesbianism, interracial bigotry mixed with alien abduction mythology, torture through Nazi scientific experimentation, revenge killings and Lange making patients like Kit Walker, played by Evan Peters, drop trousers, reveal his naked ass, bend over and take some corporal punishment.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.


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