Friday, November 16, 2012

Too Much TV Two: Asylum

Ryan Murphy and I have a contentious relationship. When he is on point, he's one of our strongest and most important television writers, surpassing even Joss Whedon, New Queer's patron saint of quirky ass-kicking.  American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck both contain some of the best television moments out there; the writing is often sharp and mercilessly smart. And, ok fine, Glee is an important show, even if the writing is questionable and the fanbase is increasingly obnoxious. Unfortunately, Ryan Murphy is unpredictable, almost as good at missing the mark as he is at hitting it. He's also produced some of the worst television out there, very often in the same series that's just dazzled us. Sometimes even in the same episode.

It's worth mentioning that in spite of Glee's queer legacy, Ryan Murphy's worlds are wildly homophobic and especially transphobic, in an overtly violent way. Just ask Nip/Tuck's Cherry Peck (played by Willam, one of my favorite Drag Race contenders). Before Glee, queer characters had almost never done right by Ryan Murphy. Nevertheless, this season of American Horror Story is turning out to be surprisingly worth the investment. After last year's sudden decrease in quality, I was ready to declare American Horror Story a wash.

In a sequel to one of New Queer's greatest hits, I'm taking another moment to revisit/rewatch American Horror Story. Spoiler Alert: I spoil stuff. Read at your own risk. Most of my writing should probably have this disclaimer in front of it.

This season, subtitled "Asylum," takes place in a criminal asylum (duh) run by a religious order and headed by a terrifying nun named Sister Jude. It follows the adventures and foibles of nuns, doctors, and inmates, some of which are clearly crazy, some less obviously so. There's some thematic overlap between this season and the first, with a few important differences. This first is that with the exception of a demonic possession (I'm not convinced we can assume this possession is really happening), there is nothing truly paranormal occurring. This year, America's horrors are all home-grown. Serial killers, medical experimentation, and terrifying pseudo-treatments abound, but the inmates aren't actually haunted, except by each other and the downright weird narratives they've invented to account for their various crimes. American Horror Story: Asylum's monsters are products of mid-century American culture and are all the more terrifying for it. These monsters are real, kiddies.

The second strangeness of this season is that its plot has absolutely nothing to do with season one. Many of season one's actors are back in new configurations, playing entirely different roles. If I'm being generous in my thinking (and why wouldn't I be?), maybe Ryan Murphy is playing with the kinds of continuity that we take for granted in television, disrupting the concentric episode/season/series temporalities of development that are so familiar to TV viewers. Jessica Lange has described the phenomenon as very much like belonging to a theatre troop, and maybe she's onto something. Does the refusal of continuity and development expand the scope of Murphy's horror story? There may be precedence for this, but I can't think of any because I'm an inadequate TV scholar unless it involves Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Real World.

Storytelling, a particular focus of the first season, takes center-stage in the second. Murphy asks us even more explicitly to think about the stories we tell, the narratives we invent which enable us in certain ways, and the places where these revisions start to break down. There's a wonderful line from one of the inmates about stories, but I'm afraid my mind isn't what it used to be and I'm not in the position to re-watch AHS in the middle of the day, so this is becoming an increasingly less helpful paragraph. I was reminded of a line from Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World, though: "We become the stories we tell about ourselves." Again, not a particularly helpful detour.

Asylum tackles storytelling at the institutional level, positioning Sister Jude's forced religious fervor alongside Dr. Thredson's faith in downright monstrous psychology and the fantastic narratives the patients invent to excuse their crimes. Where/how does (horror) story become faith, become dogma, become institution? What are the limitations of these distinctions and why do we insist on them? Though these overlapping modes of storytelling achieve different levels of plausibility and cultural legitimacy, at one point or another they all falter. Much like Dr. Arden's Frankenstein-like monsters, the narratives begin to fail their inventors, mutating unpredictably. Sister Jude's religion, once the source of her authority within the asylum, quickly becomes a source of torment as another nun threatens to expose her past indiscretions. What happens to us when our narratives fail us, take on life we'd never imagined, and become monsters beyond our control? Murphy uses the individual psyche as a framework for understanding organized memory and cultural amnesia (a parallel that holds up better in some places than others).  Asylum tangles with the instability of memory, the impulse to pathologize, and the slipperiness of sanity in importantly historical ways, an examination that is especially relevant in the wake of this summer's string of violent shootings that people continue to insist are individual exceptions rather than cultural products.

Timely television from Ryan Murphy?!?! I'm as surprised as you are.

Asylum feels all the more American precisely because it deals in real histories. Where season one set its sights on the family, Asylum sinks its claws into America's questionable history of institutionalization and diagnosis. Murphy reminds us that much of our self-evident faith in modern psychology has roots in terrifying medical practices that begin increasingly to resemble contemporary ones. One character's lobotomy (which turns her into the perfect 1950s housewife) reminds us that the history of the nuclear family and the mythology of post-war America is always one of medicalization and always brushes up against the technologies of pathology and identity-formation that are central to 21st century America. Involuntary ECT feels clearly wrong when applied to a fictional lesbian character, but remains a significant treatment for severe depression, often applied involuntarily for the same "criminal" reasons present in American Horror Story. An overwhelming percentage of ECT patients are women, by the way. Ryan Murphy holds us accountable for the gritty history of pathology in 'Merca. The show suggests that though asylums have revised their criterion for entry (slightly), the fundamental narrative framework that creates the need for asylums and that emerges through the inside/outside tension of normalization remains in place. In many ways, Asylum's American horror story is still unfolding.

Give it a watch, readers. Though it still feels like it's missing some of season one's strange intelligence, American Horror Story: Asylum continues to unfold in downright compelling ways. Of course, now that I've vouched for it, Murphy will almost certainly turn off his brain, make Kit Walker's alien story real, and have the aliens blow up the asylum, a la Independence Day. If the aliens turn out to be real, I will break my TV. I SWEAR IT.

Be good, folks.

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