Saturday, November 24, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum

I shouldn't like FX's second season of American Horror Story. I'm sensitive to negative portrayals of people with mental illness and can't stand when emotional and personality disorders are associated with violence and horror. But this is a hard show for me to dislike. Briarcliff, a Catholic-run institution for the "criminally insane" exists in 1964 and is run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) who voices the wisdom of the church in the first episode: "Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin." These are hardly administrators that the audience will identify with. American Horror Story: Asylum serves up old cliches about the mentally ill being dangerous, but the characters most committed to that belief are asylum staff who use exorcism and frontal lobotomies as respectable techniques. Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), who runs human experiments behind closed doors and Sister Jude who punishes by caning, hardly model healthy human behavior.

The barbarism of their methods is openly criticized by Dr. Oliver Thredson, a ridiculously good-looking court psychiatrist who spends several episodes observing a patient at the asylum. Dr. Thredson's ideas about medication and post-partum depression seem quite enlightened until he disparages Sister Jude's spiritual cure for homosexuality only to recommend aversion therapy. And that's the dynamic that saves this show for me: the sanest people are locked up while their caretakers proves themselves, one by one, to be absolutely off their rockers. As sadistic and scary as Sister Jude is, the licensed medical doctors really need to be watched. Briarcliff houses the criminally insane? Only while the full staff are in the building.

On an online article about the show, one response caught my attention: the criticism was that in the first season there was a clear baseline of normality that this season lacks. The commenter suggests that without distinguishably sane, reasonable characters like Vivian and Ben Harmon from season one, the scary stuff has no contrast; Briarcliff's lunacy on top of lunacy doesn't have the same narrative tension. I think this commenter has failed to recognize the sane characters: they're the ones in Briarcliff who are strapped to beds, physically violated and beaten. Although Sister Jude paints all her charges with a sin-stained brush, it's the clear-eyed Kit, Lana and Grace who we sympathize with and root for. Even sexy Shelly and the woman referred to as "The Mexican" have their obsessions, but recognize the evil of certain staff members. (I'm amused that there's an elderly, female, Spanish-only character who's called nothing more than "The Mexican." This leads to a scene in which Sister Jude is looking for that patient, muttering "Where is that goddamn Mexican?" I found this funny, I don't know why).

In this same comment that caught my attention, the writer accuses this season's storyline of having no heart. I see what she means: Ben, Vivian and Violet Harmon had history and strong bonds. But I think this season we're watching bonds forming between Kit, Grace and Lana and we have yet to see how those connections will evolve. I can feel the growing heart of this show even though it's not centered on a traditional family.

This season is very creepy and plenty scary even though there are no ghosts this time. Lange's Sister Jude facing off against Cromwell's Dr. Arden is even more delicious than Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice descending from skittish-yet-earnest servant to lascivious, lying nun. Besides having experience with mental illness, I was also raised Catholic, so there's no way I can resist this. Dangerous nuns and an egotistical, self-serving monsignor? Despicable acts done in the name of the Catholic church? Crucifixes and unsettling statues at every turn? This is some twisted s--- and I'm hooked, even though I'm still sure I shouldn't be.

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