This review contains spoilers.
2.1 Welcome To Briarcliff
Say what you want to about American Horror Story, but it knows what it wants to be, and knows the best way to make that happen: lots of random sex scenes, and more butts per hour than any other show on cable. In between that, there are any number of horrifying events, from the throwing of bodily fluids to brutal canings, unwanted surgeries, and some of the best dialogue on television.
In the wake of the successful and highly entertaining first season, which featured the Harmon family in a haunted house populated by souls both friendly and evil, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk made a brave, wise decision. Rather than revisiting the first season and continuing that story, they decided to tell a new American Horror Story with completely different characters, a completely different setting, and a whole new sort of horror. Rather than finding some other kind of supernatural creature, this season of American Horror Story is hinting strongly that the horror isn’t from without, but from within. Alternately, it’s not ghosts that are the horror, but science gone horribly awry. And, apparently, some science fiction (or hallucinations thereof).
But first, duelling story lines. The A-story, at least this week, is that of Briarcliff Sanitarium in the modern day. Formerly a tuberculosis hospital where dead people were lowered down a body chute dubbed the Death Chute, it was later turned into a sanitarium by the Catholic Church. Now, it’s a decrepit old ruin that is one of the most haunted places in America.
Basically, Briarcliff is Ryan Murphy’s version of Waverly Hills Sanatorium in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky. Waverly Hills was, at one time, one of the busiest TB hospitals in the world, and the legend says that tens of thousands of people died there (though more conservative and truthful numbers suggest it was fewer than ten thousand). It is indeed haunted—I have been on a ghost tour and I have seen, heard, and experienced things that I cannot explain—and every paranormal television show has done a ghost hunt taping there, and there is indeed a body chute nicknamed the Death Tunnel. While it never was an insane asylum, after it closed as a TB hospital, it became a geriatric home for dementia patients and those with mobility issues before being closed down by the Commonwealth of Kentucky due to patient abuse and neglect. At one point, a group wanted to tear the hospital down and build a giant statue of Jesus in its place, but those plans fell through and now Waverly Hills is a year-round ghost touring site with a popular haunted house attraction every Halloween.
Briarcliff seems to be the central point for both stories. The 1964 piece concerns the insane asylum itself, along with its sadistic head nun Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), high-minded director Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), experimental physician Doctor Arden (James Cromwell), and their various plots and intrigues balanced against the needs of the mental patients – some with real mental illnesses, some without real mental illnesses, and some on whom we are undecided. These include the accused murderer Bloody Face, aka Kit Walker (Evan Peters), nymphomaniac Shelly (Chloe Sevigny), the lovely Grace (Lizzy Brochere), and the hulking Spivey (Mark Conseulos). Complicating matters is the snooping reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who wants nothing more than to get her hands on Bloody Face and really pick his brain; coincidentally, she’s not the only one.
The 2012 setting concerns a couple known as The Lovers, Leo (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame) and Theresa (Jenna Dewan), who have spent their honeymoon traveling to haunted locations and having sex in them. While exploring Briarcliff, the couple run into a bit of trouble when something unexpected happens.
Director Bradley Buecker helmed several episodes last season, and this series opener proves to be as good as anything from the previous run from a visual standpoint. Buecker really makes hay with the mental hospital setting, and he emphasises its importance by using multiple match-cuts between 1964 and 2012. Particularly clever was a scene in which Theresa flees down one abandoned hallway by flashlight only for Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe) and Lana to come down the same hallway from the opposite direction, also lit by flashlight. There’s another great match cut later in the episode involving a telltale floor, and it’s just as brilliant as the first one. There’s also a fantastically shot scene involving Kit that I won’t reveal, but it’s the best of its kind I’ve ever seen bar none, including much more expensive variants in movies and on television.
There’s plenty going on this week, and the show is pushing to establish a lot of characters as soon as possible. The groundwork is laid pretty easily for Lange’s Sister Jude, who seems to be the major protagonist. Other characters, such as Rabe’s Sister Eunice and Cromwell’s Dr. Arden, get some supporting elements put in place, with plenty of room to expand and grow as needed. The patients, aside from Kit, don’t get as much time to shine, but they’ll fill out the bulk of this season’s story arcs I imagine, and the little hints of them the viewer receives in the first hour only serve to whet our collective appetites. The Lovers are still basically cyphers at this point, but the little we’ve found out about them thus far has proven to be awesome.
The decision to bring back great actors from the first season (Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe) and supplement them with even better supporting actors (Joseph Fiennes and James Cromwell) looks like it’s going to be a smart one. In spite of the troublesome Massachusetts/New England accents, the cast handles Tim Minear’s dialogue really well, and it seems like a great episode that sets several stages while still being an incredibly fun, strange, and entertaining hour of television.
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