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American Horror Story Review: "Welcome to Briarcliff" (Episode 2.01)

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<i>American Horror Story</i> Review: "Welcome to Briarcliff" (Episode 2.01)

There’s nothing ever subtle about a Ryan Murphy show. Glee is a weekly tour de force of bombastic musical numbers and grand emotions. The New Normal practically hands viewers a pamphlet regarding its socio-political agenda. And the premiere of American Horror Story: Asylum wallowed in every possible horror movie trope and character archetype. The oversexed mental patient? Check. The crazed doctor performing experiments on humans? Check. Serial killer? Check.

But the first hour of American Horror Story: Asylum was a vast improvement over the first season of the series. When American Horror Story premiered last year, I found the pilot unintentionally hilarious. Between Dylan McDermott, who Murphy announced today is returning to the series, masturbating while crying and looking out a window and Connie Britton having sex with an unknown man in a rubber suit, the whole thing struck me as quite funny.

There was nothing funny about the premiere of American Horror Story: Asylum. The show is clearly out to horrify viewers, and it attacks that goal with a palpable delight. Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Adam Levine (being a better actor than I thought he would be) kicked off the hour as a honeymooning couple whose idea of romance is having sex in a decrepit former insane asylum. They’re the people in the horror movies who go into basement alone. Once Levine’s arm comes off, the action goes back to 1964 and the Briarcliff Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The series was the subject of quite a bit of controversy when it entered itself into the miniseries category at the Emmy Awards. But it makes sense now. Much of the gang is all here, but they are in a new setting playing new roles. (Perhaps Dylan McDermott is off crying somewhere in one of Briarcliff’s rooms). Last season, Jessica Lange deliciously chewed the scenery as Constance Langdon and won an Emmy for her performance. Now she conjures up every bad memory anyone educated by nuns may have ever had as the severe Sister Jude, the matriarch of the Briarcliff Asylum. “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin” in Sister Jude’s world.

My only criticism of Lange’s inspired performance is her accent. All the press information vaguely has Briarcliff located somewhere on the East Coast, but Lange is clearly doing a Boston accent. The accent isn’t as bad as say, Julianne Moore on 30 Rock, but it is distracting nonetheless. It took me out of the scene every time I wondered, “Why is Jessica Lange talking like that?” Unless you’re Matt Damon or Ben Affleck, don’t try a Boston accent.

The truly weird thing about Briarcliff is that Sister Jude isn’t the worst one there. Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) is performing experiments on the patients that often lead to their deaths. (Really what would Babe say about that?) Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), who is ultimately in charge of Briarcliff, is, for unknown reasons, in cahoots with Dr. Arden. That dynamic sets up viewers to root for Sister Jude against their better judgment. Sister Jude also lusts for the Monsignor in a way that would make the Thorn Birds blush. How long until Sister Jude and the Monsignor get to know each other in the biblical sense?

Sarah Paulson is back as Lana Winters, a reporter who wants to get to the truth about Briarcliff but quickly becomes a patient trapped by Sister Jude. Lana is gay and her girlfriend Wendy (Clea Duvall) is afraid to go public with their relationship lest she lose her job a school teacher.

Kit Walker (a returning Evan Peters) is a young guy keeping his marriage to a black woman a secret. The loving couple gets about two seconds of happiness before aliens take Kit’s wife and he is labeled a mass murderer and committed to Briarcliff. The show lost me at the aliens. Can’t we leave one horror movie cliché out of this? It’s like on Project Runway when they over-accessorize. It is just one trope too many.

But I’m intrigued to see what kookiness happens next. I’m also waiting for season one and season two to somehow become linked. The Harmons of season one moved from Boston to Los Angeles, and now season two is taking place on the East Coast. This can’t be a coincidence.

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