Thursday, October 18, 2012

Television Review

American Horror Story - Asylum (Wednesdays on FX):  And I thought season one was nine kinds of fucked up.  This incarnation of the show makes the previous one look like Leave It To Beaver.  But if you're expecting a continuation of the ghost story in that creepy California mansion, you'll be disappointed.  Asylum is a completely new storyline set on the east coast in 1964.  Many of the same actors from season one return but in different roles.  Weird, I know.  And a few new actors jump on the crazy train.  We're talking Oscar-caliber actors, folks.  That surprised me, considering how utterly twisted this thing is.  There are R-rated horror flicks out there that aren't as dark, that don't make your skin crawl and heart thump like Asylum does.  So what the hell is going on this time?  More supernatural/paranormal shenanigans?  Um...not exactly.

Episode one, "Welcome To Briarcliff," starts out in the present day with a horny newlywed couple exploring an abandoned insane asylum.  They hear a noise behind a locked steel door and the guy thinks it's a good idea to stick his arm in the food slot.  Whatever's behind the door rips the arm off.  Then screaming and bleeding and...we're sent back to 1964.  Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is home with his wife when they're abducted by aliens.  No, that's not a misprint.  Next, we're at the asylum where reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) interviews nun-in-charge Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) albeit under false pretenses.  See, a serial killer is being transferred there and Winters hopes to sneak an interview with him.  The serial killer, it turns out, is Walker, who woke up naked and surrounded by dead women who'd been skinned alive (presumably by the aliens).  Sister Jude also butts head with the asylum's Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) who is up to no damn good in his laboratory.  See, patients have gone missing, Sister Jude's patients, and she knows but can't prove, Arden is behind it.  Sister Jude's boss, Monsignor Howard (Joseph Finnes) is what you'd call ambitious and wants to use Briarcliff to promote himself all the way to Rome and the papacy.  There are a few other peripheral characters but these are the main players.  I didn't mention Zachary Quinto's character (Dr. Oliver Thredson) because he doesn't appear until next week, but I understand he's a psychiatrist and not a bad guy. 

Lange's Sister Jude is something else.  Strict, pious, just this side cruel but she has a secret, a flaw in herself so shameful that the guilt she feels translates into how she treats others.  The secret?  Well...let me put it this way, she wears a cherry-red slip under the black nun outfit and really enjoys whipping bottoms with a riding crop.  Cromwell's Arden positively oozes menace, and while Sister Jude seems to be the main bad guy at first blush, it's Arden who's truly the embodiment of evil in this story.  I mean Nazi-doctors-experimenting-on-concentration-camp-prisoners evil.  And the power struggle between the doc and the sister is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the show.  I found myself rooting for Sister Jude despite what she does to reporter Winters.  And Peters as Walker is so sympathetic and likable that it's hard to watch what is done to him in the asylum.  No one believes his story about aliens, of course, and that's frustrating.  But when Dr. Arden gets his hands on the hapless young man, you just want to scream.

The folks behind American Horror Story were very smart when they decided to make Jessica Lange the main character for Asylum.  She is simply mesmerizing.  New players Finnes and Cromwell are more subdued but no less engaging in their performances.  They lend a bit gravitas to the proceedings that should make critics sit up and take notice.  The story arc this season does seem to veer all over the road...alien abduction, medical torture/experimentation, Church-run sanitarium, and a sex-crazed nun at the center of a twisted and somewhat naughty maelstrom.

Asylum is very dark, emotionally draining, and perhaps more importantly, well made.  Acting, story, direction, production values...all top notch.  Are there scares?  Oh my, yes.  Is there blood?  A guy gets his arm ripped off.  And there's a psycho doctor.  So, yeah.  The ending?  Well, it's TV so you're left hanging, of course.  Should you watch it?  Unless you can't stand good acting or have a delicate constitution, you really should check it out.  Jessica Lange, James Cromwell, and Joseph Finnes?  Come on. 

American Horror Story - Asylum is rated TV-MA for every reason imaginable. 

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