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.

Welcome to Briarcliff Review

Editor Rating: 4.8 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0 (130 Votes)

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

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