TV Rants & Raves: American Horror Story - Asylum

Posted by: Tony Hinds  //  February 1, 2013 @ 8:38pm

Filed under: TV Rants & Raves

American Horror Story has been on my radar from the moment it was announced. I've always loved the horror genre's sporadic stabs at the small screen (from Night Gallery to American Gothic) and am more than ready to welcome new additions. But as I watched this 2nd season -- I realized I could never write about the show on a week to week basis. The plot twists and twists and twists. For me to try to analyze or anticipate plot developments, would've been a fool's errand. Heck, even by the end, I'm still not 100% clear on some things.

But I suppose that's the "genius" of American Horror Story. Forget the rave part. File this sucker under, rant. I guess.

Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story has always been an oddity. In its first season, it emerged as a campy but, creepily fun throw-back. By throw-back, I mean, it was a show that seemed comprised of elements cherry-picked from other popular horror franchises. A mash-up, so to speak. What it lacked in originality, it made up for with blood, sex and atmosphere. And for that, I dug it. Hardly HBO's The Wire but, I admittedly consumed the first series without complaint.

Season two, subtitled Asylum, ditches the setting and characters from season one but, brings back the entire cast (including Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto and Dylan McDermott) in a totally new story -- with everyone playing different roles. This intrigued me. Suddenly, a dash of originality where I least expected it.

Plot, anyone? In 1964, Briarcliff Mental Institution has gained a reputation for sickening abuse and neglect to its severely deranged patients. Plucky journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) plans to get herself locked up in the asylum, in the hopes of writing a tell-all article that will expose the public to these dark and 'fascinating' secrets. Her end game? To have the Briarcliff Institute shut down forever and ever. Have I already used the word campy?

Along the way, things become complicated. Those complications involve everything from blonde haired nuns and space aliens, to genetically mutated mental patients and a serial killer known as Bloody-Face. (Apparently, they spent a whopping 8 seconds coming up with the killer's name.) No, creator Ryan Murphy (of Glee fame) has never been a fan of subtly. Or consistency. However, I say that with (a tiny shred of) affection.

His influences worn proudly on his sleeve, (be it Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor or more recently Martin Scorsese's underrated Shutter Island), Murphy spins an unpredictably psychotic yarn-- worthy of the low-grade pulp paper its literary predecessors were printed upon. I just wish the characters had been more engaging or, at the very least -- more interesting.

Individual episodes and moments can be terrifically effective and entertaining but, when you get to the end and look back at this new season as a singular story, told in weekly chapters -- it adds up to absolutely nothing.

Jessica Lange's tortured Sister Jude is brilliantly portrayed but, her character is so inconsistent. Her thoughts, feelings and motivations change on an almost daily basis. (Endless flashbacks and jumps into the future only exacerbate this problem.) If this were a documentary portrait of a real person, that would be fine. But instead, Murphy is making an over-the-top Technicolor homage to the B-horror films of yesteryear.

My point? The writers can have Sister Jude doing whatever crazy, random thing they want. That's cool. Just don't expect the audience to feel anything when Jude (spoiler alert) dies in the end. You have to earn an ending like that. American Horror Story does not.

And lest we forget those "mysterious" space aliens. A question: Who are they? An answer: They are little, emotionless grey beings with giant black unknowable eyes, who will abduct several characters in a very flashy manner. (Oh! And if you ever need a Deus ex machina, give these aliens a call!) Why they decided to get involved in this little drama on a boring planet like Earth -- I have no idea.

But really- why did the aliens get involved? To simply produce children who will one day grow up to become (spoiler alert) a doctor and a lawyer? Seriously? What are they-- good Samaritans from across the galaxy?

Perhaps a better question: Do I actually care? No, not really. I'm serious, I don't care. Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk's pop culture pyrotechnics may have gotten me through another season of American Horror Story but, I can honestly say: I have not enjoyed the ride.

Occasionally, when you're watching a TV show or a film, you can become confused by certain details of the plot. When you are dealing with a trustworthy, talented artist -- someone like the aforementioned Martin Scorsese, you can relax. Relax -- because you know you're in good hands. Scorsese knows exactly what he is doing. If I am confused, the odds are-- I'm supposed to be confused by this part of the story. And reliably enough, Marty comes through in the end, wrapping things up with the skillful touch of a master.

But sometimes you become confused and you slowly realize -- you're not supposed to be confused by this part. You're supposed to laugh or cry or whatever. For these sins, you must blame the artist for putting out a sloppily produced piece of work.

My reaction to American Horror Story: Asylum can be summed up with a clichéd adage of affectionate scorn: "I'm not mad. I'm just... disappointed."

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Tags: American Horror Story, Jessica Lange, Ryan Murphy, Zachary Quinto, Dylan McDermott, Brad Falchuk, Glee

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Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.

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