Thursday, October 18, 2012

American Horror Story: Welcome to Briarcliff (2.1)

Despite the presence of nuns and aliens and innards, it feels a lot easier heading into American Horror Story than it did last year. Sure, most of it is because we've gotten used to the dogged tenacity of the writing team to keep things outlandish on a pretty consistent basis, but it's also helped by the knowledge we have now that we didn't have when the series first began. Season one opened with only a vague sense of where the show was going, FX dodging questions about the series' length, leaving many of us at home unsure whether or not we'd be stuck in that murder house for years. In the interim, however, we learned that American Horror Story is in fact an anthology series, every season dedicated to a new story, a new location and new characters. So there's suddenly a lot of breathing room, at least in terms of creative vision, one that presumably isn't hampered by mystery about the future.

One of the stronger examples of this is in the sudden existence of a real through line. This is a season with something actually resembling a message, or at least a narrative theme. Set in 1964, within the walls of a mental institution, the show is already exploring ideas of what used to be placed under the umbrella of 'mental illness', blurring that together with oppressive religion, and resulting in something thematically interesting. Jessica Lange's Sister Jude effectively sums it up with her line about 'illness' being nothing but a fashionable explanation for sin, and writer Tim Minear covers an array of bases here: insanity used to frame innocent people, homosexuality described as a sickness, nymphomania a sign of the devil, mental and physical retardation warranting immediate incarceration. We're just getting scant concepts here, but it's already clear that this is a season designed to raise moral questions, not only about how we treat others that are atypical to generic society, but also how far we've come and what we could so easily slip back into if we allowed certain individuals a real voice or platform.

Jessica Lange is once again handed an absorbing character to play, if a little more understated than the hammy caricature she portrayed last season. Her Sister Jude is domineering, colorful and eagerly confrontational, trying so hard to repress the sexual hunger hidden literally beneath her habit, having fallen head over heels for Joseph Fiennes' chilly Monsignor. It's also intriguing seeing a woman so defined by her faith, even if she's desperate to spread her wings somewhat. Catholicism defines Sister Jude, so much that she sees little worthwhile in making anything else a focal point of her life. And that's sort of cool from a narrative angle, a woman presumably raised around relentless contrition and absolution, who is doing these things because it's all she's ever known, but is also craving more sinful distractions. Sure, that kind of reads like a porno movie, but it's also a fun angle for what is such a decidedly trashy and sexual series.

Sister Jude isn't the only element of psychosexual intrigue, though. It may just be my reading of things, but there is something overtly sexual about Sister Mary Eunice pulling down her underwear to be spanked into absolution, or the church's strange obsession with homosexuality and erotomania, both of which are seen here. It's just this strange blurring of sex and guilt, which manifests in generally kinky ways. I'm not expecting a ton of religious insight from a show that featured Dylan McDermott weepily masturbating in its series premiere, but it's fun to see it being explored at all.

As an actual mini-series, we're still in the dark as to where American Horror Story: Asylum will actually go, Welcome to Briarcliff being more of an introductory chapter than anything else -- but it's hard to not be enthusiastic about a kind of Girl, Interrupted-style break-out, all these characters written off as insane banding together to overthrow the system. Few of the main inmates seem generally crazy, Evan Peters' serial killer suspect Kit is used as our avenue into the asylum, appalled by his lack of a fair trial and the screwy experiments he's subjected to. Lizzie Brocheré, despite her murderous backstory, is implicated as Kit's go-to savior, somebody with enough knowledge of the walls of Briarcliff to keep him safe. Even Chloë Sevigny's nymphomaniac Shelley seems strained as a sexual tease, more acting out of a sense of who she should be, rather than who she actually is. When we catch that glimpse of her being assaulted by one of the hospital orderlies, she becomes a real tragic figure.

I'm a little worried, however, that the show may have played its hand too quickly with Sarah Paulson's girl reporter. As a character, Lana Winters seemed like an entertaining protagonist, somebody stuck writing the recipe pages who suddenly stumbles upon a huge scoop, only for her investigation to wind up getting her incarcerated herself, purely to keep her quiet. It's such a strong idea, Paulson herself being one of the most endearing and interesting actors currently under the radar as a 'name', but it's frustrating that all of it occurs within this episode, landing Lana in the exact same circumstances as Kit. And I'm not sure we needed two characters in the same position so soon into the year. I'm hoping I'm wrong, but it's the only area here that disappointed a little.

Welcome to Briarcliff is otherwise absorbing, however. The show feels distinctly different from the salacious, occasionally mannered crazy-town hour that was season one, more about lofty high-concepts than flashy thrills. And that's a good thing. I'm all for a little crazy, but it got a little much last year. Again, it's hard to entirely discern where the story is going, particularly all the Dr. James Cromwell/'cannibal beasts in the forest' thing, but the knowledge that this will all be wrapped up by the end of the season should make the journey less rocky. B+


- The wrap-around story, involving Adam Levine and Mrs. Channing Tatum, felt a little bland, especially since Levine stinks of old liquor, cigarette butts and supermodels and just screams 'douche', but Bloody Face as a character already freaks the crap out of me. Ugh. I really do not need to see that over and over again this season.

- There was an old Nip/Tuck story involving a man abducted by aliens and the electronic chip implanted underneath his flesh (seriously), and it's interesting to see Ryan Murphy unearthing old ideas that he didn't fully realize years ago. The chip scene was probably the really jarring moment this week, if only because it seemed so out of context for a show set in 1964, but I'm hopeful it'll go somewhere cool.

- So we have possible alien invasions, James Cromwell presumably feeding inmates to some kind of monster in the forest, and conducting experiments on the brains of the most insane. Ooh, and a bunch of inmates who appear entirely rational and ordinary. That's a whole lot of plot, and we still haven't even seen Zachary Quinto yet.

- Again, great cast this season. The decision to bring back so many of last season's MVPs (Paulson, Quinto, Lange) is inspired, while both Sevigny and Clea DuVall (adore her!) make strong impressions, too. I'm a little less enthused about Joseph Fiennes, if only because FlashForward soured my opinion on... well, pretty much everything, but Fiennes in particular. He was fine in his previous Murphy work (the god-awful Running with Scissors adaptation, and the promising Pretty Handsome pilot), so hopefully he flourishes in a better environment.

- I was a little underwhelmed by the new credit sequence. While all the same ingredients were there, it seemed to lack the immediacy and freaky-deaky charm of season one. I think I miss the drippy-droopy, shaky noise that I should probably describe a lot better. You probably know the one I mean.

Guest stars
Chloë Sevigny (Shelley); Adam Levine (Leo Morrison); Jenna Dewan Tatum (Teresa Morrison); Clea DuVall (Wendy Peyser); Mark Consuelos (Spivey); Britne Oldford (Alma Walker); Joe Egender (Billy)
Writer Tim Minear Director Bradley Buecker


  1. I'm really interested in the science versus religion debate. Because Ryan Murphy has portrayed them both as horrific here: the religion with its oppressive rules and frightening cruelty, and the amoral scientist, happy to do whatever perverse experiments on humans he wants to further his 'research'.

    I did laugh at the interracial couple though, because in the 60s that would clearly have been taboo. Which kind of mirrors Ryan Murphy's other show, The New Normal!

  2. That's an interesting point, but I guess the Monsignor appears to have good intentions, too, with his diatribe about actually helping others and trying to understand mental illness instead of praying it away or whatever.

    And I'm assuming the interracial idea will come up again, since it seems too significant for it to be coincidence.

    Thanks for your comment, Gerard.

  3. Just watched it. Very intriguing and insanely creepy. I really adored season one so I'm hoping this season doesn't disappoint. My god how epic is Jessica Lange? I seriously love her.

    Intriguing point about reporter chick being incarcerated so soon. On one hand, it would have been fitting to have that be the end of her storyline in the finale as it did feel like it happened too soon. But maybe they've got great things planned for her. Still it's weird like you said having two characters in the same position. A bit unnecessary unless they forge a bond.

    Nevertheless, I'm exciting for the year. And by the way the credit sequence scared the hell out of me. I'm never watching it again. It's even more disturbing than season one's!

  4. I'm way, way, behind but found the pilot interesting.
    I was told to NOT see the first season of AHS but go straight to the second and so have.
    Bit surprised nobody caught The Phantom-reference?
    Kit Walker?

    Great review by the way, I found you via BillieDoux and you can be sure I'll be going straight to your reviews after watching an episode!

  5. Thanks for finding the site and posting so many comments so far. It's always hugely rewarding.

    Season one is definitely worth checking out, though. It's not perfect at all, but it has some interesting ideas and fun scares here and there.

    And that's interesting about the Phantom. Do you think it was intentional? Ryan Murphy seems to like the name Kit (there was a major character on Nip/Tuck with the same I.D.), so I don't know if it was just accidental?