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American Horror Story Asylum Review: Minding a Manor

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I very much enjoyed American Horror Story Season 1.

It was different, it was creepy and it most certainly kept you guessing.

But the people mostly took a backseat to the ghosts and the mysteries and the general goal by Ryan Murphy and company to freak viewers the heck out. Not even Connie Britton could really bring her character to life in any interesting way. She was simply a prop for whatever scare the show had in store next.

This was not the case on "Welcome to Briarcliff," however. The entrance into American Horror Story's asylum was certainly full of fright and gore, but after just one hour, I'm fully invested in the plight of these patients, specifically Evan Peters' Kit and Sarah Paulson's Lana.

Evan Peters as Kit

That's what stood out the most to me in this terrific premiere.

A mental institution is fertile ground for Murphy, yet I was impressed but how he mined it here. Yes, there were references to blow jobs and anal sex and limbs bring torn off (all in the opening five minutes), but the characters already feel more complete than they did last year. There's a sense of a much fuller story at work here.

Take Jessica Lange's Constance from Season 1. She was pretty much pure evil, locking her daughter in a closet, caring only about her own interests. Now compare her to Sister Jude. The latter is far more complicated and layered, which is often the case when you bring religion into the picture. She's clearly set in her ways, she very much believes she knows the best course of action for the inmates. And, yes, she wears lacy red lingerie.

But she also appears to care for these people in her own warped way. She wants them to get better, she simply thinks the only way to do so is to follow her God-based lead.

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to James Cromwell's Dr. Arden. He sees a similar bigger picture, but he sees it from a scientific point of view. Who the heck knows what the goal of his experiments are? Who isn't freaked out by them? But this isn't torture for torture's sake. It's someone who is taking it upon himself to figure out something about the human brain.

Religion. Science. Sanity. Morality. These are fascinating topics and the show is setting the stage for a horror-fest that is actually grounded in subjects that continue to stir debate today.

"Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin," Sister Jude says at one point and that single line is more psychologically intricate than anything we heard last year.

A horror movie can simply shock for two hours and viewers will go home happy. They ate some popcorn, they screamed a few times, it was well worth the price of admission. But a 12-episode drama needs a lot more to keep my attention. I don't simply want things to go bump in the night. I want to care about who they are bumping into.

And I already feel for the wrongly-imprisoned Kit and Lana, both of whom are stuck under Jude's deranged care in Briarcliff Manor because of secret relationships. Okay, and possibly also because of aliens. It's a seemingly ridiculous concept on the surface, but it works because of the underlying themes of sexuality and power and mental stability and what makes someone "good."

There's substance to the insanity; there's already a direction and a cohesion I simply didn't find in the first version of AHS.

I really have no clue where all this is going and it may eventually cross the line from fun-filled adventure to over-the-top mess. But for now I'm on board. For now, I'm as anxious to see what's next as Jenna Dewan's character was to learn what was behind that door.

Just without the attack from Bloody Face. I hope.

Review

Editor Rating: 4.8 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 4.4 / 5.0 (128 Votes)

Matt Richenthal is the Editor in Chief of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

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Excellent first episode...can't wait for the rest of the season!

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I never saw a single episode of season 1. Had no idea the show even existed! But I watched last night, and I am so drawn to this show! I HATE being scared. I hate horror movies... but something about this show keeps me watching. I didn't really even feel scared. I'm left with more "what just happened" feelings, and "I hope they're okay!" thoughts. This episode made me feel a huge connection with the main characters. THAT is something that usually doesnt come until a second episode ;)

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The first few eps from Season 1 are horrible but the writing only went up after that and it ends on a high note. This season, it starts with a very high note. I'm specifically enchanted by Kit and Lana, Sister Jude and Grace. But when the doctor pull out the mechanism out of Kit's necklace, that just brings the show to a whole new level. I have higher expectation but still I'm on board.

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We gave up half way through Season1, so I don't know whether it will be worth starting watching Season2 when it starts over here. Is it better than Season1?

Aries93

A much stronger season premiere than season one. More please!

Danielle50

Woohoo! I love the premiere.

Ilkvomit

Hell yeah !! That was great casting by getting a pinhead who resembles Schlitze from the Tod Browning classic "Freaks"

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Continued post....
For me, it was a cocktail of horrific melodrama couched in hip, fast writing/editing with enough satisfying and conflicting sex to match and exceed the natural narrative capacities of True Blood.
While I'm slightly bummed about narrative shift in Season 2, I was able to locate some redeeming aspects, particularly in the way of showcasing the extraordinary talent and versatility of the show’s actors, as they all seem to morph into entirely new personas. Refreshingly, though, this transition seemed to damagingly foreground while simultaneously lessening the blow of the drastic narrative shift between seasons. Thank the gods for Jessica Lange, and Chloe.

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Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed Season 2 (to a degree), and love the characterization and performances first and foremost. I went into my viewing experience tonight completely ecstatic, for reasons the show ended up dissolving with the move to season two. Unlike you, I found Season One's narrative and particularly character development incredibly sophisticated, complex and nuanced. In moving to Season Two, I realized that I was most attached to the original narrative – family stuck in house, can’t leave house, lots of passion and odd sex — and that that, more than the strong deployment of a horror genre cocktail, was most significant for me in terms of the show's success. I found Jessica Lange's character, as well as the character of Tate, Violet, Ben, and Vivien. And how can we forget Denis O'Hare and Zachary Quinto?? For me, it was a cocktail of horrific melodrama couched in hip, fast writing/editing with enough satisfying and conflicting sex to match and exceed the natural narrative capacities of True Blood. While I'm slightly bummed about narrative shift in Season 2, I was able to locate some redeeming aspects, particularly in the way of showcasing the extraordinary talent and versatility of the show’s actors, as they all seem to morph into entirely new personas. Refreshingly, though, this transition seemed to damagingly foreground while simultaneously lessening the blow of the drastic narrative shift between seasons. Thank the gods for Jessica Lange, and Chloe.

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A fantastic premiere that sets up a great storyline for all of the main key characters! I don't really have any complaints about it! Can't wait!!!

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