American Horror Story: Welcome to Briarcliff

Posted on October 18, 2012

Having never grown up in or around turn-of-the-century mansions, and having our contact with aging psychopathic southern belles with equally murderous ghost children following them around somewhat limited, we never really found season 1 of American Horror Story to be all that scary. Shocking, yes (especially the rather frank dialogue and envelope-pushing nudity and situations represented), but not necessarily scary per se.

Having endured 8 years of Catholic school education under the tutelage of the Sisters of Saint Joseph (commonly referred to as “The Marines of Nuns”) in the ’70s, Tom was a whimpering ball of tears by the end of last night’s season 2 premiere.

Okay, no. Not really. Although you ask any Catholic who attended grade school prior to 1980 what their reaction is to the site of an angry nun with a switch in her hand, and you’ll get at least a little twitching and flinching.

Despite the show’s title, we never really felt horror watching it; not last season, and not last night. Its stock-in-trade has always been shock rather than fear, with a very deep and gracious tip of the hat to classic horror tropes, and a wickedly biting satire of American culture. Last season’s haunted house story threw its net wide on that latter point, offering up botched abortions, school shootings, nurse-killers, teen sex, gay kinky sex, and gay parenting as topics to ponder. Because show runner Ryan Murphy knew that the things that keep Americans up all night in fear aren’t axe-wielding ghosts, but teenagers with guns or women who don’t want to remain pregnant, or gay people with gimp suits and a bassinet, or god forbid, giving birth to a developmentally disabled child. It was wicked good fun, but it was also the most accurate satire of American culture seen on television in some time.

When Murphy announced that this season would tell an all-new story with new characters (but many returning cast members), we both hashed it out and came to the conclusion that it was either going to be a devil story or an alien abduction story, because next to gay people adopting or women having abortions (or Muslim/Mexican terrorists, but that would make a pretty tough fit to this type of show), nothing scares Americans to their core more than an Exorcist-style story or a Close Encounters-gone-wrong one. Think of it: those are two types of stories that even skeptical 21st Century people still shudder over as if they could be true. We patted ourselves on the back last night for getting it right – although even we didn’t consider that the story would seem to be composed of both tropes – but we’re going to stop right there, because really, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that what we see in the first hour of the season is really going to have much at all to do with how things are going to shake up. If anything, we should look to last season’s arc and then assume that they’re going to do everything exactly the opposite.

If you remember, last season, the story played out almost exactly the way a lot of people inadvertently predicted. In other words, plenty of us skeptically opined in the early days, something along the lines of “Where the hell is this going to go? Are they just going to kill off the entire family and turn them into ghosts?” Only to find out that’s exactly what they were going to do. The show is good at playing with your expectations, offering you an obvious possible outcome, and getting you to reject it for being both too obvious and too ludicrous. Last night’s premiere gave every indication that we were dealing with abducting aliens and possible demonic influences, but it was so cagey about it, that we suspect we’re going to be surprised at some point as to what the story’s really about. Of course, that’s exactly the trap we fell into last time, but if we ponder it too long we’re going to get stuck in an ouroboros of guessing and second-guessing

As for the quality of that first episode, it was… well, a little sketchy. It was dripping with atmosphere – especially the opening five minutes with horny-toad newlyweds Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan pretty much doing every stupid thing the first-reel victims in a horror story tend to do, from entering haunted houses laughing, to having sex in them, to sticking their hands in dark, foreboding places they shouldn’t. But after that, things started moving just a little too rapidly with just a few too many jump cuts. That’s AHS’s style – and it annoyed quite a few grumpy TV critics last season – but even so, there were times last night when it got just a little out of hand.

But even if we have some slight reservations about the quality of the story-telling going forward, we can all rest easy that Queen Jessica is in the house, tearing up the scenery and scaring the SHIT out of an entire generation of 40-plus-year-old Catholics. What interests us about her character is that she’s playing all the evil nun tropes, but there’s a core of morality somewhere locked inside her, as she seems to be quite legitimately horrified at whatever that Mengele-like character seems to be doing to her patients. Other highlights include our favorite red carpet denizen of all time, Chloe Sevigny, playing a horny lady at a time when horny ladies were locked up for being crazy, and Sarah Paulson as the lesbian reporter, offering up a performance of steely determination crossed with pre-sexual-revolution terror at having to hide her life from the world. There was also a very nicely done (if slightly heavy handed) parallel drawn between gay romantic relationships and interracial ones. We can look at the latter and think, “Oh, how awful there was a time that two people in love had to hide their life from the outside world,” just as Murphy hits us over the head with “WHAT DO YOU THINK THE GAY MARRIAGE ARGUMENT IS ALL ABOUT, STUPID?”

That is what ultimately makes this show such wicked fun; it alternately mocks and pays homage to horror story tropes while at the same time, and much more subtly, mocking and making fun of Americans’ silly fears and prejudices. There really is nothing like it on TV and there never has been.
[Photo Credit: FX – Stills: tomandlorenzo.com]

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