American Horror Story: Asylum is either awful with a few moments of brilliance, or brilliant in its awfulness. Or both. Or neither.
This post is probably full of what could technically be called spoilers, but with something like American Horror Story: Asylum, it feels like warning about spoilers in a fever dream. With something that’s so incoherent that even the characters aren’t particularly changed or surprised by anything that happens — like, for instance, having a break-out attempt interrupted by zombie mutants — I’m not even sure if the audience is supposed to be surprised.
I’m not sure how any of it works, actually. It’s so similar but so far removed from camp that it’s almost like a transmission from hundreds of years into the future, once camp has evolved into something culturally different. Back when I watched True Blood, I said that it was shamelessly confident and over-the-top; AHS feels like a bunch of people watched True Blood and complained, “why does everything on television have to be so realistic and boring?” It’s like Axe Cop, if the writer weren’t five years old, but instead a twelve-year-old going through an extremely vivid puberty.
Or as if the producers got a bunch of writers together for a brainstorming session, and said “Mental asylum. Go.” And after a few hours of free-form idea association, as the producers were gathering note cards from every surface of the room, someone asked, “That was productive; how long is it going to take you guys to edit it?” And they replied, “‘Edit?’”
It’s crazy nuts is what I’m saying. I didn’t see the first season of the series, so I can’t compare the two. I started watching with season two, specifically because I loved the idea of an “anthology” series, where the story resets each season, and all the actors start playing different parts in a new story.
From reading descriptions of the first season, though, I think the basic idea is the same here: start with a pastiche of ideas from dozens of different horror stories (season 1: haunted houses and ghosts, season 2: B-movies and prison exploitation flicks), roughly assemble it into something resembling episodic television, and then leave the rest to a bunch of good actors being completely, absurdly committed to the material. (That’s another possible analogy: it’s like they made an entire series out of Ted Levine’s scenes in Silence of the Lambs). (Also, no pun intended with “committed,” but now I wish I had intended it.)
And also: do as much as you can with Jessica Lange, because she’s terrific.
As great as Lange is, though, I think you can pretty effectively sum up the entire American Horror Story: Asylum experience with Chloe Sevigny’s character. I admit I haven’t thought much of Sevigny one way or the other, but you don’t have to make any obvious references to Brown Bunny to acknowledge that she goes all-in. Here, she plays a sexually-liberated woman in the early 60s committed to an asylum after being branded a nymphomaniac. Over the course of this season, she’s: delivered a few speeches about the oppression of women; propositioned the evil surgeon in an attempt to get free; negotiated her way into an escape from the asylum; sacrificed herself (by fellating a guard) to help the others escape, right down to saying “go on without me!”; been captured and raped by the evil surgeon (who’s also probably a Nazi war criminal); laughed at his deformed penis in the midst of the aforementioned rape; woken up on an operating table to find her legs had been cut off; and now as a result of mad science experiments been turned into an immortal, cannibalistic mutant, who most recently asked adult Anne Frank to “please kill me.”
And she’s the B-story, by the way. I haven’t even mentioned the serial killer, the alien abductions and implants, the plucky young lesbian reporter wrongly committed and given shock therapy, or the nun who’s been possessed by a demon. It’s all thrown together and pureed into an exploitative pop culture mash-up, where scenes are smashed together so quickly that you’re never given time to realize that none of it makes a lick of sense.
Sevigny’s is the shallowest of any of the named characters, just barely made more complex than “chronic masturbator guy” or “head-banging woman” or “The Mexican.” She’s a character entirely formed from cliches and one-note motivations and laughably terrible dialogue. And yet, when you’re in the moment, it all kind of works — scene by scene, I’m engaged. She comes dangerously close to being around 2.5 dimensional.
Nuns, aliens, serial killers, mutant zombies, Nazis and Nazi hunters, lesbians, nuns possessed by demons, creepy aversion therapy hand jobs, snuff porn-loving mad scientists, shock therapy, bare-assed caning, corrupt monsignors, bakery sex with an axe murderer, phone calls from hit-and-run victims, thrill-seeking killers, and at least for a while there, the chance to see the guy from Maroon 5 getting stabbed over and over again. It’s what Sci Fi Channel movies aspire to be.
It’s a strange, other-dimensional construct, like a tesseract theorized by David Foster Wallace — something that exists solely to be watched, beyond the idea of whether it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s a show where a character is simultaneously Anne Frank and an insane person who believes she’s Anne Frank, and both realities are true, and somehow neither reality seems to be as shockingly poor taste as it should be. A singularity where the very concept of camp has collapsed on itself, leaving a mass of engrossing images that transcends any notion of good, bad, quality, exploitation, taste, or coherence.
Also there’s no way that Zachary Quinto’s character isn’t the Bloody Face killer. I called it last week, but I’m making it official now.