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‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ Review: “Welcome to Briarcliff”

American Horror Story Season 2 Asylum
FX

“Welcome to Briarcliff,” the season two premiere of ‘American Horror Story: Asylum‘ is a gloriously over-the-top hour of television, but does it improve on the soapyness of season one? You bet.

‘American Horror Story’ is similar in part to ‘True Blood‘ in that both prefer the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling — the more ridiculous, the better, and if you can cram every nutty idea into an hour of TV, that’s even better. But where ‘True Blood’s weakness lies in over-packing each episode with half a dozen melodramatic storylines each week, with the ratio always skewing more toward soap than the stuff viewers love (the absurd, the bloody, the stuff with weird sex), ‘American Horror Story’ seems to have a more narrow focus and a better idea of what the viewer wants to see. And like ‘True Blood,’ if you don’t like a particular plot, just wait three or four minutes and you’ll get back to one you prefer. Though I doubt you’ll find too much to dislike about ‘Asylum.’

The episode begins in present day with two lovers (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) exploring the now decrepit Briarcliff Asylum — a former Tuberculosis hospital that was taken over by the Catholic church and reformed into a mental hospital. The lady of the pair is seemingly turned on by horror stuff (of course), so she spends much of this thankfully brief plot getting her boyfriend to the brink of having sex with her before scurrying off to explore the asylum. In a classic Ryan Murphy moment, Levine licks his fingers before sticking them down his girlfriend’s underwear. This is in the first five minutes, and if you aren’t on board with Murphy’s brand of crass and creepy (and moments like that one, which are both but also genuine) by now, you should probably turn back. Levine encounters some sort of entity that rips his arm off, sending the woman off to look for help, and by episode’s end she encounters the famed Bloody Face — a serial killer who had been confined to the asylum in the 60s. The lovers plot is the new season’s greatest weakness, and it can go one of two ways: it will remain to be the very limited presence it is now, or it will be eliminated all together in favor of keeping the focus on the past, which is all interesting.

Back in the 60s Sister Jude ran Briarcliff with a cane in hand, a religious zealot who was as fervent about her love of the Monsignor in charge of the place as she was about God. A fabulously scenery-chewing Jessica Lange plays Jude, who welcomes the latest patient — Bloody Face (Evan Peters) — to the asylum. Bloody Face (aka Kit Walker) is a man wrongly accused of killing his secret African American wife and wearing her skin like a suit — you see, it was actually aliens who did it, abducting both of them, experimenting on them, and then setting him up as a murderer to cover their tracks. Naturally, no one believes him until Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) discovers a spidery alien computer chip in Kit’s “cute blonde melon.” (Side note: these are the kinds of things James Cromwell will be saying. You should be into this.)

Also committed to the ward are a cast of characters including Chloe Sevigny as a nymphomaniac (because obviously) and Lizzie Brochere as Grace, a girl who seems just as sane and innocent as Kit, accused of butchering her entire family. Placing bets now that Grace is actually a total nutter-butter and fantastically bonkers.

Kit isn’t the only new arrival at Briarcliff this week — reporter Lana Winters is trying to uncover the asylum’s secrets (she writes on her notepad: “Hiding something. Lies!” — excellent journalism work), but her snooping around with the aid of the mousy Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) leads Sister Jude to uncover Lana’s secret: she’s a lesbian living with her school teacher girlfriend (Clea DuVall), so she uses this information to have Lana committed to the asylum, giving her a front row ticket to finding out everything she wanted to know.

And then you have the aforementioned Dr. Arden, used to illustrate the battle between science and religion as Sister Jude has it out for him, and the scenes between Cromwell and Lange are on fire — the two of them could shut that entire set down with a masterclass in melodrama. Arden is definitely hiding some sinister deeds, though, primarily involving the use of brain surgeries without anesthetic and chopping up inmates to be fed to feral monster people out in the woods.

There’s a lot of plot, to be sure, but the atmosphere of this first episode is spot-on — the air is thick with sinister business and the stories are woven together better than, say, the series’ first season, which at times felt like obvious and sloppy patchwork. Ryan Murphy can be great at making some bonkers and weird television (see: the first three seasons of ‘Nip/Tuck’), and perhaps separating his more saccharine, soapy leanings and keeping them confined in the world of ‘Glee’ is helping him compartmentalize, focusing his energies more directly. ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ is flawed, yes, but it’s one of the better hours of television Murphy has ever delivered, and if the rest of this season can match the pace, atmosphere, and intrigue this first episode did, we’re in good hands.

Of note: Zachary Quinto is top-billed in the credits and plays Dr. Oliver Thredson, but he’s absent entirely from the premiere. Hopefully we’ll get to meet him next week!

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