Geekdom Come, Troping the Riff

Troping the Riff- The Asylum Episode

There is nothing more difficult to quantify than someone else’s’ reality. And if I told you that I had lived a life battling the forces of evil or traveling the stars you would assume, and perhaps rightly so, that my perceived reality had gone a little far askew of the reality everyone else was living in. If I persisted with my delusions, there would be little choice but to have me committed to an institution. This is something we all accept as part of the real world and is a far more likely explanation for what is going on than I am a secret space wizard fighting to save humanity from extra-dimensional threats. Which is why it is so easy for the heroes of our favorite genre shows to fall into the trope trap that is The Asylum Episode.
The Asylum episode usually (but not always) comes deep into a genre shows run. A main character, often the show’s central protagonist(s), wakes up in a mental institution confused. A doctor shows up to check on them, acting as if this is part of a daily routine they have often performed, and asks if they are still experiencing delusions about their other life. This other life is the show we as the audience have been watching for however many seasons. These episodes are meant to make the protagonist question their own sanity. Inevitably our intrepid hero figures out that this is all a ruse and that they are having some sort of fever dream caused by a spell, machine, psychic attack, or trauma. They do something drastic to wake themselves up and find themselves back in the fictional world we all know and love.
This is one of the most common episode tropes out there in science fiction. Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape have all used it, some of them multiple times. The Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind” does this to Riker and gives Number One his most memorable solo adventure of the series. DS9 also delivers a stand out example of this trope in “Shadows and Symbols”. The Stargate attempts, however, are nothing to write home about and Farscape’s two offerings along this line “A human Reaction” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again are a mixed bag.
Other genres get in on the action as well. In an interesting decision in using this trope in only their fourth episode ever “The World in the Walls”, which I rolled my eyes at for the first fifteen minutes before the episode took an interesting turn and subverted the trope in an unexpected way. Joss Whedon tries his hand at the whole asylum thing with the Buffy episode “Normal, Again” which is a good but not great episode, though admittedly I do set my Buffy bar a bit higher than other series. And Ash vs Evil Dead adds in chainsaws and Muppets to this trope for comedic effect in the second season episode “Delusion” and let’s be real have you ever known something with chainsaws and Muppets not to be enjoyable?
Fans of the blog will not be surprised at all to know that my favorite episode involving this trope comes from Dan Harmon’s community which subverts the whole thing beautifully in “Curriculum Unavailable.” The study group sees through the attempts of their fake therapist incredibly quickly pointing out all of the obvious tells that give away the game.
Overall the Asylum episode is a pretty weak entry into episode trope catalog and produces far less memorable episodes than some of the other standard tropes we’ve seen on genre tv over the years. At no point is the audience going to believe that the world they have invested so much time in is just one person’s delusions. And if the audience isn’t going to invest in the question of what is and isn’t real then what is the point of the episode. However, there are a few standouts along the way and when you’ve already done over a hundred episodes of a show why not give it a go and see if you can’t knock it out of the park. Or maybe you’re not really reading this post at all and my entire blog is just one component of your wider delusion. Who knows, you certainly don’t.

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