[This is a review of American Horror Story: Hotel episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
As weird as it sounds, the misshapen and somewhat incongruent narrative presented in the American Horror Story: Hotel premiere feels like the logical next step in the series' increasingly patchwork-like design and accelerated appropriation of horror references. 'Checking In' is a bold announcement of the fifth season, brought in under a shroud of slight reinvention that nonetheless sticks with the series' penchant for shamelessly lifting from a number of readily recognizable sources, pleading homage to charges of outright theft.
The premiere is everything awful about AHS wrapped up in an admittedly gorgeous, frequently bizarre, and sometimes intoxicating package. If judged on visual presentation alone, the episode would likely be highly regarded, as it frequently presents another lurid plunge into deliberate inconsistency in a striking and vivid way – one that is made more apparent as the series gives itself over to musical cues featuring songs played in their entirety. All of this is to suggest a program less interested in being absorbed via traditional storytelling methods than it is in simply being a sensory experience.
In that sense, the aural and visual onslaught delivered by the premiere is simply the series announcing what it is: a superficial descent into surrealism, wherein an endless train of pop-culture references is the vehicle of choice.
But it's not all bad. In fact, the musical cues, which include two straight-faced attempts to use song as the text within a scene (with 'Tear You Apart' by She Wants Revenge and the far more egregious insertion of the Eagles' 'Hotel California'), let the episode progress aspects of the narrative without characters having to actually engage one another verbally. This is a significant blessing, as much of the dialogue sounds like an afterthought – something absentmindedly glossed over between naming Denis O'Hare's character Liz Taylor and choosing how much the guy sewn into a mattress should actually resemble the "sloth" victim in Se7en.
Thankfully, much of the dialogue is handled by performers who can actually do something with it; namely, Kathy Bates as the crusty manager of the fictional Hotel Cortez and Sarah Paulson as Hypodermic Sally, Hotel's walking, talking resurrection of heroin chic. There's also Matt Bomer – who made an all-too brief appearance in AHS: Freak Show – and New Girl's Max Greenfield, both of whom bring differing levels of smarm and charm to the events. Wes Bentley – another holdover from Freak Show – appears as a Los Angeles detective beset upon by a nemesis who may have kidnapped his son and whose continued presence drives a wedge between Bentley and his wife, played by Chloë Sevigny.
Bentley's performance is most indicative of what AHS has become in recent years, as it's difficult to tell whether or not the whole thing is meant as parody. Close-up shots of the detective pulling off his aviator sunglasses provoke snickers not unlike those that would erupt when David Caruso donned his in CSI: Miami. Meanwhile, Sevigny is so clearly reprising her role as Melanie from David Fincher's Zodiac it's hard to imagine Bentley's Lowe isn't some jokey amalgamation of the protagonists found in similar serial killer movies.
Is the series lampooning the oft-used trope of a cop and his family being hunted by a madman or is this too meant as homage? Perhaps the question of intent is one of the things still left to appreciate about this series.
But the biggest question of the season may be Jessica Lange's ostensible replacement in Lady Gaga. Despite a sometimes-vacant line delivery, the audacious performer is the perfect addition to Hotel, as the series' increased determination to stimulate it audience via two primary senses so seamlessly plays into the on and off-stage representation of Gaga as a performance within a performance, its a wonder she's only now appearing on the show.
However, Gaga's vacancy allows Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk the opportunity to use her not as an actor but as a prop, and her Countess less as a character central to the narrative (whatever that is) than as a garnish to an already decadent set. This is most evident in the way Lady Gaga's unblinking visage takes up the entire frame after slashing the throat of a hapless Swedish tourist, or when she and Matt Bomer lie naked on a bed, bracketed by the exsanguinated victims of their bloodlust. The show isn't asking the viewer to gaze upon Gaga; it's giving them no other option.
These shots of the Countess, or of the gore the show is so enamored with, or even the lengthy musical cues, are indicative of how, with each new chapter of this anthology, Murphy and Falchuk manage to distill American Horror Story down to what they see as its essence. It's not in the story – because one hardly exists – and it's certainly not in the dialogue, as most of it is either laughable or forgettable. Instead it's in creating a work of (faux?) art that's as easily consumable as it ravenously consumptive of other artists' work.
The result is something as beguiling as it is objectionable; it's the kind of show you can't watch and yet don't want to turn off.
American Horror Story: Hotel continues next Wednesday with 'Chutes and Ladders' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Suzanne Tenner/FX