Flashback: AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM

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With the mini-series categories blowing up within the past year, I have taken it upon myself to use my very abundant amount of time to explore these amazing artistic and creative feats. Most recently, I have checked myself into Briarcliff Manor – the setting for FX’s smash-hit American Horror Story: Asylum. And the things I saw were…well, horrifying – in a good way.

From the ironically deranged mind of Glee’s Ryan Murphy comes the second installment of the AHS anthology, the first of which followed a modern day family moving into a haunted house in LA. In the second chapter, however, Murphy quite beautifully recycles his actors to tell the story of an insane asylum in the 1960s and all of its inhabitants.

Once a prestigious tuberculosis ward, the manor was converted to a monastery-run home for the criminally insane. Owned by papal hopeful Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes from Shakespeare in Love), the asylum is under the rule of a Nurse Ratchet-type, Sister Jude, played by the incomparable, two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, who played Constance in the first installment.

The overambitious reporter, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), attempts to come in contact with one of Briarcliff’s patients, a murderer by the name of Bloody Face, but her naivety gets her placed in the nuthouse herself.

Accused murderer Kit Walker (Evan Peters, who played Tate in the first installment) is locked up for Bloody Face’s crimes – but did he do it?

With the help of Dr. Oliver Thredson (Star Trek and Heroes’ Zachary Quinto), both Lana and Kit plan their escape from Sister Jude’s rule.

The show’s many religious undertones and gruesome sights of the conditions within the asylum create a much more ominous sense of horror, whereas the first season relies a lot on cheap, “jumpy” scares and Connie Britton just being afraid.

The second season continued the tradition of a Romeo and Juliet-type relationship that Tate and Violet have in the first season. This time around, former Nazi and asylum doctor Arthur Arden and the Devil-possessed Sister Mary Eunice meet their tragic fate. Ironically, it’s the ex-Nazi that initiates their incineration.

The show also plays well on the Cold War hysteria that has become a timestamp for the asylum generation. At the time, the threat of extraterrestrial war was just as real as that of the atomic bomb.

However, my one criticism for this amazing and addictive mini-series is that the ending seemed too dragged out. Not to spoil anything specific, I feel like they turn society and the media into the antagonist, which I didn’t feel was necessarily what Murphy intended to showcase. I would have much preferred they stuck to the “curiosity killed the cat” theme, but hey – who am I to say so.

If you have yet to delve into the series, please do yourself a favor and watch it. You can find the first season on Netflix and you can get a little creative when viewing the second.

Production of American Horror Story: Coven is now in the works in glorious New Orleans. Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Evan Peters are set to return amongst others, Joining the cast will be Kathy Bates (Fried Green Tomatoes), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), and Emma Roberts (Scream 4).

MAD MEN Go Camping

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From a new and improved Betty to a violently deranged Peggy, last night’s Mad Men pushed all of the characters to their breaking points.

Pete’s the first to break, when he realizes that his contributions at SCDPCGC are going unrecognized by the partners. Harry advises him to see a headhunter, so he enlists the help of Duck Phillips to find a new start.

Peggy is torn between her newfound loyalty in Ted and her timeless bond with Don, causing her cower in the face of making a decision for the firm. Meanwhile at home, her relationship with Abe is on the rocks after he is stabbed and a rock is hurled through their bedroom window.

While Megan mopes about her deteriorating work environment, Don once again shuts her out of his life – signified by the drowning sirens over Megan’s complaints. He has something else on his mind – Bobby’s camping trip. On his trek to the wilderness, he bumps into a now-slender and refreshing Betty at a remote gas station, and the two hit it off like they were young again.

After the most uncomfortable singing of Bobby’s new camp song, “Father Abraham,” the adults retire to their lodges, but Betty leaves her door ajar – and the rest kind of explains itself.

While Don and Betty are going at it, Megan’s sex-crazed co-star Arlene goes in for a kiss to ease Megan’s tensions – but she’s not a lesbian, so it ends rather quickly and awkwardly.

Back in the woods, Don and Betty rehash their old feelings about their marriage. All the while, Don gives the best analogy for sex to every be spoken by anyone: “Just because you climb a mountain, doesn’t mean you love it.” Spoken like a true jackass.

Back in the city, a gloomy Roger tries to buy his way into his and Joan’s son’s life, but when he arrives at her apartment, he is greeted by the mysterious Bob Benson.

I’ve read a lot of interesting theories on who Bob is – some saying that he is Don’s lost-long son from his first time with Aimeé in the whorehouse, others stipulating that he is a Russian spy. My personal favorite theory is that he is Mad Men’s “Nicki and Paulo” from Lost, in that he will have an entire episode dedicated to him in the coming season and that he will die an untimely death that will be intended to teach some sort of thematic lesson.

On the other side of town, a fearful Peggy grabs a musket head when she thinks she hears a burglar and lunges at the shadowy figure – but it’s Abe! I was hoping she’d have killed him, but she just impales him to the point where he calls off their relationship.

Now single, Peggy tries to cozy up to Ted, who wants nothing to do with his now somewhat sleazy employee. In one of the greatest Mad Men endings to date, Peggy is shut out of both Ted’s and Don’s doors – trapped in the middle of the office as Lou Johnson’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” mocks her into the credits. Peggy now has nothing and no one – but the scenes from next week’s episode show her becoming friends with Joan – she needs that.

So what will become of Don and Betty’s one-night-stand? What will Bob Benson’s role be in the coming episodes? Will Pete leave the office? Will Bobby completely overshadow Sally in the writers’ eyes? So many questions, four episodes left. Next week’s episode is titled “A Tale of Two Cities.” Lost, anybody?!

Netflix Pick: TOP OF THE LAKE

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In the Sundance/BBC collaborated television mini-series, Top of the Lake, a detective travels back to her desolate New Zealand hometown to solve the mysterious disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old girl.

Elisabeth Moss of AMC’s Mad Men gives an electrifying performance as Robin Griffin, the emotionally attached detective. Her character reminds me of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) with her sporadic violent bursts and workaholic nature.

The missing girl, Tui Mitcham, is the daughter of the town’s most infamous drug lord and real estate agent, Matt Mitcham. Throughout the seven-part mini-series, the engaged Robin becomes romantically involved with the girl’s half-brother, Johnno, which bares some unforeseen consequences of its own.

Meanwhile, a group of troubled women follow the spiritually gifted and life coach GJ (Holly Hunter), to the open valley that sits next to the lake. The grounds, which are named Paradise, are believed to be the original Garden of Eden, so the women seek meaning in their life.

These two stories intertwine as the investigation approaches its shocking conclusion.

David Wenham (Lord of the Rings) also stars as Lieutenant Deputy Al Parker, Robin’s superior and the town’s vocational mentor for its underprivileged children.

I highly recommend Top of the Lake for crime drama enthusiasts, as well as any fans of Elisabeth Moss. With only seven episodes, each at about fifty minutes, you can watch one a day and be satisfied in one week’s time!

The show has been nominated for five Critics’ Choice Awards, including Best Movie or Mini-Series, Best Actress in a Movie or Mini-Series (Elizabeth Moss), and Best Supporting Actor in a Movie or Mini-Series (David Wenham, Peter Mullan, and Thomas M. Wright).  The Movie or Mini-Series categories are stacked unlike any year before. With Top of the Lake, HBO’s Parade’s End, BBC’s The Hour, and FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum, the categories have never been this competitive. I think I’ll do a post on these mini-series, so stay tuned!

A Graduation and a Funeral: THE MIDDLE & MODERN FAMILY Season Finales

ABC wrapped up its 2012-2013 programming last night with the finales of The Middle and Modern Family, two comedies that are continuing to define comedic television with each progressive season.

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Over at the Heck household, Axl is gearing up for graduation, but is remaining distant from his nagging mother, Frankie (Patricia Heaton).  Meanwhile, Sue announces to her classmates that it will be her last week riding the bus because she plans to pass her driver’s test. Sixth times the charm, right? As the school year ends, Brick is reminded of his duty as class historian to create a picture slideshow of his grade’s elementary school memories – needless to say, he’s got nothing.

After a disastrous road test, Sue is awarded her license for braving all the elements, and she, once again, breaks out her accomplishment dance.

The episode ends with Axl walking across the stage, as Frankie, who has already declared she would not miss her son when he departs for college, turns into a sobbing mess. This, in turn, translated into my own mom breaking out in tears.

In the final scene of the season, Axl and Sue, both with their licenses, go off to see their friends, and Frankie clutches onto Brick, comically pleading for him to never leave.

The Hecks will be back for a fifth season in September, and recent Critics’ Choice nominations should give them a well-deserved boost in ratings. The show was nominated for Best Comedy over their glorified rival, Modern Family, and Eden Sher is finally getting the recognition she deserves with a nod for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.

The Critics’ Choice Awards take place on June 10th and will be hosted by fan-favorite, Retta, who plays Donna on Parks and Recreation.

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On Modern Family’s season finale, the clan heads down to Florida for Phil’s mom’s funeral. Again, another somber scenario for ABC Comedy Wednesday.

While Mitchell clears up Gloria’s alleged prostitution charges in a Florida court, Cam is out making friends with the elderly women in the retirement community – stirring up gossip amongst the ladies.

Jay bumps into his “first,” a woman thirteen years his senior, and he is discouraged to find out that what he thought was a special night between the two of them was just another one-night stand for her.

The Dunphy kids each receive a gift from the deceased grandmother, and Alex contemplates the meaning of hers: a lighter. Soon, she discovers an accompanying note, which informs her that Paul Newman had left behind the lighter in her restaurant and that she had taken it without attempting to return it to him. The one customer who saw her steal it turned out to be her future husband and Alex’s grandfather. She reminds the straight-edged Alex to break the rules every now and again, so Alex uses the lighter to set off a beautiful fireworks display during the funeral, giving the perfect backdrop for the season’s close.

The Dunphy/Pritchett/Tucker gang will also be returning to ABC in the fall. Oddly, the Critics’ Choice decided to nominate Sarah Hyland, who plays the dim-witted, but good-intentioned oldest daughter Haley. Hyland’s nod is the only for nomination the show received, who could be a testament to the show’s waning dominance in the comedy world. Don’t get me wrong, the show’s consistency and originality is almost unparalleled to anything else on television, but new niches being created by premium cable shows like Girls and Veep, are changing the game completely.

Netflix Pick: THE KILLING

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Recently, I’ve started to watch AMC’s critically acclaimed series, The Killing, which hopes to answer the question, “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” Although I’m only five episodes deep, I have some strong feelings (both good and bad) about this drama.

Set in the dismal wasteland that is Seattle, WA, the show revolves around three intertwined stories – the police investigation, the Larsen family, and the Darren Richmond campaign for mayor. While I give the show credit for trying to give equal time to each of the three stories, I really only care about the police investigation.

The about-to-retire Agent Sarah Linden (Emmy nominee Mireille Enos) and her soon-to-be-replacement Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) track down lead after lead to find who killed Rosie Larsen. Their relationship defies all previous cop partnerships, straying away from the clichéd “good cop, bad cop” mantra.

Linden, who is engaged to be married in sunny Sonoma, keeps delaying her departure to California to be with her fiancé, which gives her son some more time to spend in his beloved harbor. Her stone cold demeanor and judgmental eyebrow raises cover up her broken interior – which has been alluded to but not yet explained. Holder, on the other hand, is a goof. Never speaking with grammatical accuracy and dressing like a thug, nobody seems to appreciate his contributions to the investigation.

All the while, we get glimpses into the Larsen’s household and Darren Richmond’s campaign for mayor, neither of which I care about.

The Larsen’s have mourned for five straight episodes. I understand that the loss of their daughter must be tragic and induce perpetual grief, but after one bed-wetting and another uncontrollable crying fit, I’ve seen enough.

Similarly, Richmond’s mayoral campaign is very cyclical. So far, the only connection Richmond has to Rosie’s murder is that her body was found in the trunk of one of his company cars, which had been reported stolen days before the killing. However, his plot is centered on finding a mole in his office, which I, again, don’t care about.

Regardless, I continue to click “Play Next Episode.” Someone should look into Netflix addiction, because I think it’s a thing… but that’s a conversation for another day.

The Killing returns to AMC for its third season June 2, joining Mad Men to make an all-star Sunday line-up.

MAD MEN On Drugs

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In the latest installment of everyone’s favorite period drama, the crew at SCDP(CGC) calls in a doctor for some much needed psychiatric treatment. Instead of the twenty-first century approach that psychiatrists use today, the doctor simply had the ad men drop their pants and he injected them with a mystery substance. Adrenaline? Liquefied crack? I don’t know what it was, but it promised 72 hours of creative focus, but really just made a crippled Ken Cosgrove tap dance.

Much like Don says he is “feeling a lot of emotions,” the episode is one long emotional roller coaster.

Fred Gleason, the artistic genius of CGC (and Phil of the Future’s dad…), dies after suffering from incurable cancer. Awkwardly, half of the staff mourns and the other staff pretends to have sympathy for a man they never knew. That being said, the former CGC staff head off to his funereal, while the SCDP crew works through the weekend on the Chevy account – with the help of the doctor’s mystery drug.

The staff is full of energy, having races around the office and playing human darts, which leaves Rizzo with a pen pierced into his forearm. Luckily, Peggy is drug-free and cleans out the wound, leading to yet another kiss scene for Elisabeth Moss’s character. After Rizzo opens up about his cousin being killed in action, Peggy realizes he is just using her to cope with his sorrows. However, she gives some keen advice to her co-worker, saying that he needs to express his emotions. “You can’t dampen them with drugs and sex,” she adds – a message Don and Roger have yet to receive.

All the while, a random psychic, who we later discover is Fred Gleason’s daughter, comes back with the CGC staff from the funeral and tells Don that she can’t feel a heart beat on him. Yet another point for my “Don Draper is dead” theory.

Over at the Draper apartment, Megan is in a jam. Don’s kids have arrived and she needs to go to a casting meeting – but Don is all drugged up to realize he needs to come home. Dilemma!

Megan leaves Sally in charge and goes to change the world or something. However, in the middle of the night, a mysterious black woman comes into the apartment, waking Sally. She claims that she is her grandma, Ida, and that she raised Don when he was kid. Soon, Bobby is up too, and the two of them are convinced of her sincerity. Sally even gives her an awkward Voldemort hug! A confused Bobby goes on to ask his sister, “Are we Negros?” which has to be the funniest thing ever said in the history of Mad Men. You go, Bobby. You go.

Over at the office, Don is coughing up a lung as he has flashbacks to his adolescent years at the whorehouse – specifically when he lost his virginity to the prostitute Aimeé – “with two e’s and an accent.”

When Don returns home, he finds police officers, accompanied by Henry and Betty, who tell him that a black woman has robbed his and many other apartments in his complex. He passes out after Betty goes off on him. Smooth move, Don.

In a shocking turn of events slash proof of character development, Don greets Sylvia into the elevator on his way to work the next morning and the two don’t have sex! Progress.

When Ted comes back to the office after the weekend, he finds that half of the work is gibberish and that the drugged up creatives managed to spell Chevy wrong in their slapdash work. Furious, he confronts Don, but all Don has to say is, “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse,” alluding to Joan’s stint as a prostitute to get the Jaguar account. With Chevy, the whorehouse is more symbolic, thus the flashbacks.

One of the last scenes of the episode struck me as the most tragic. Don calls his daughter Sally to apologize for not being home when the woman robbed his apartment. Sally is embarrassed because the woman was able to answer every question about Don that she could think of. “Then I realized I don’t know anything about you…” she closes. Maybe this will inspire Don to be a better father and a better person? Most likely not, but maybe…just maybe.

THE OFFICE: Robtrospective

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Oh, where to begin this post. I don’t know if I want to do a traditional review of The Office series finale or just give a retrospective of my own (or a “Robtrospective”) of the show that has been defining American television for the past nine years. I’ll go with the Robtrospective.

To be honest, I didn’t start watching The Office from its pilot back in 2005. The first episode I saw was season three’s “Branch Closing,” and I kind of stumbled on it by accidently. Back in the day, our family only had one computer, but we each had our own user account that we could log into. However, iTunes used to operate on a computer-wide scale rather than restricting to each individual user’s account. That being said, my older brother’s iTunes would sometimes accidently start syncing when I would plug in my now-vintage iPod Video. One time, the computer recognized my iPod and began syncing The Office season 3. Being scared for my life, I quickly unplugged the device to avoid my brother’s wrath if I had so much as clicked on one of his iTunes playlists. However, I was too late. “Branch Closing” had been downloaded onto my iPod.

Now that it was downloaded, I figured I would see what the show was all about… and the rest is history.

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I finally started to watch the show religiously in the show’s fifth season, having caught up through my brother’s iTunes account. I remember being intrigued by the show’s mokumentary style, reminding me of my favorite show at the time, Survivor. The short-and-sweet testimonials never ceased to elicit a chuckle and the real-time lens scopes truly captured the essence of everyday life.

The show embraced pregnant pauses in a way that no other show had done before. It’s greatest foil, yet partner-in-Thursday-night-crime, 30 Rock, literally used all of its 22-minutes to spit joke after joke, reference after reference. What killed Tina Fey’s show (and many others like Arrested Development) was that it was too fast and too smart for the average television viewer. In contrast, The Office’s greatest triumph was that it appealed to the masses and the distracted. Missing an episode of the work-place comedy would not set any viewers back in terms of understanding the characters or their interactions – which is why it, along with its contemporary How I Met Your Mother, have already been syndicated on countless cable channels.

In the end, what The Office is truly about is the people and their relationships. And while the veteran employees will forever bask in the show’s glory, two latecomers truly kept the show moving following Steve Carrell’s departure from Dunder-Mifflin.

Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper) and Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate) brought fresh new faces to The Office in seasons 5 and 8 respectively. Erin, the naïve receptionist, initiated many a love triangle around the office – most of the time not even realizing she was in the midst of them. Nellie, the pompous, British saleswoman, created much-needed tension in the show, as she vied for the position of Regional Branch Manager against Andy and Dwight.

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Regardless of whether you liked it, didn’t like it, thought it should have ended with Michael Scott’s departure, The Office is, and always will be, one of the greatest feats of American television – even though its roots do trace back to England. From inappropriate “that’s what she said” jokes to “Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica,” the show has taken on a persona of its own and will be cherished by generations and generations to come.