The Asylum According to Ryan Murphy
Lovers and haters of Maroon 5 were united in pleasure Wednesday night when the pop/rock band’s lead singer, Adam Levine, guest starred on the season premiere of American Horror Story: Asylum. The lovers enjoyed seeing their favorite metrosexual bad boy display his acting chops, and the haters were happy to watch his arm get ripped off by a drooling monster even before the opening credits jerked and creeped their way into America’s living rooms.
Season one of American Horror Story, a haunted house show created by Glee producer and writer Ryan Murphy, grabbed audiences from the get-go with a jarring juxtaposition of graphic violence and kinky sex that shamed every theatrical horror film released last year. It was so wild, I wondered how the producers were going to sustain the intensity and the threat level for the main characters throughout a whole season. Like, you can’t kill them all, because the story ends. Can you?
I confess. Ya got me, Murph. I didn’t see that coming.
With an all-new story and larger cast of characters, American Horror Story: Asylum is bigger, broader, and deeper than before. Instead of a haunted house and ghosts, we’ve got Briarcliff Manor, an asylum, and subplots about aliens, serial killers, and monsters. Viewers have already been introduced to multiple storylines and complex, interweaving character dynamics. Instead of Dylan McDermott’s naked backside, we got to see Lily Rabe’s (or that of a suitable body double). This final development is either an improvement or a setback, depending on one’s point of view, I guess.
When you create a show that’s new and different – and acclaimed – the biggest pressure comes from trying to avoid that sophomore jinx. Audiences have already seen the disturbing credit sequence. We know that any character can die at any moment. The flashes of nudity are no longer shocking. So what do you do for an encore?
Knowing a little bit about Ryan Murphy, an openly gay catholic, I believe he has chosen to go bold with a statement about the parallels of personal and societal conflict. The story is set in the 1960s at a madhouse run by the Catholic Church, and the central power struggle of the show involves the sexually repressed sadist Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), with her fire-and-brimstone approach to “curing” mental illness, pitted against the belligerently atheistic researcher Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). Having two lead villains act as the other’s foil is brilliant, and who doesn’t want to watch these two chew up scenery as they literally circle each other like boxers, trading verbal jabs? It was like watching the second debate over again, only with better acting. Of course, the episode was completed long before the debate took place, but our national discourse has gotten so polarized, it’s fitting the arguments in the show take place in an asylum.
By the way, it’s interesting to note that TV’s two most talked-about horror shows, AHS: Asylum and The Walking Dead, chose to set their new seasons inside prisons.
The heroes in Asylum, such as they are in Murphy’s metaphorical universe, are the helpless patients at the mercy of the asylum’s twin dictators. Not surprisingly, the two heroic leads are social misfits already ostracized by a morally superior society long before they were sent to the madhouse. The first is Kit Walker (Evan Peters), one-half of an interracial marriage, and the second is Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a reporter in a lesbian relationship with a schoolteacher. That Lana’s lover is not permitted to visit her in the asylum – because they are not family – Murphy reminds us, even with the Civil Rights Act approaching 50 years old, not much has changed since the 1960s.
All that said, we’re not talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here. Lana is locked up in Briarcliff because she witnessed Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) feeding a bucket of human flesh to a monster in the woods and must be silenced. And Kit Walker is committed, apparently, because he was abducted by aliens and implanted with mind-controlling robot bugs that forced him to kill and skin four women, including his aforementioned wife, Alma (Britne Oldford). These are the same filmmakers who showed Connie Britton being raped by a ghost in a black vinyl S&M costume last season, after all.
Can we talk about Evan Peters for a minute? Despite his horrible deeds last season, Peters’ mass-murderer Tate Langdon managed to foster audience sympathy. We’ll see if he can do the same this year as a skinner of women (even if aliens made him do it). And I doubt I’m the only one who thinks he looks like Malcolm McDowell, since episode one virtually recreated a scene from A Clockwork Orange by subjecting Kit Walker to a psychological experiment in which he is bound and has his eyes propped open.
Also returning this season in new roles are Rabe and Zachary Quinto. Add Joseph Fiennes and Chloë Sevigny to the mix, and we’ve got some heavyweight performances in store.
The biggest threat to audience loyalty this season may, in fact, be the broad scope of the story. The cast is big and the plot threads numerous, so audiences could have difficulty latching onto someone. 60 minutes into what will essentially be a 12-hour miniseries, our two heroes are in such a hopeless, pathetic state that they seem beyond any kind of self-motivated rescue. No question, Jessica Lange is the star and easily gets the most screen time. Unlike her character Constance from last season, though, Sister Jude’s villainy is not charming. She is a repugnant beast, as bad as any drooling monster the show’s special effects team can muster. Only one episode has aired, and I already want to see her dipped in honey and covered with red fire ants. But then, sadists have a way of bring out our sadistic side, don’t they? If the storytelling is good.
I had my doubts about last season, all of which were dispelled by the time the finale rolled credits. Per the message of AHS: Asylum, maybe we can’t put our full trust in either God or science. On the other hand, Ryan Murphy might be a safe bet.