#AHS ‘Hotel’ Premiere: Brilliant nightmare that you don’t wanna wake up from

Posted on October 8, 2015


by Adam MS, editing by Alex JS

More than any other show in recent memory,American Horror Story is built on its ability to one-up itself on a weekly basis. The first season, centered around a Los Angeles family in a haunted home, made its name by constantly crossing boundaries and outrageously upping the stakes, leaving the audience to wonder just how the story could sustain itself into a second season (as it turns out, it never had any intention of doing so; creator Ryan Murphy revealed at the time the AHS would be an anthology show that rebooted itself annually).

Subsequent seasons followed a similar methodology, and basically lived or died by their ability to escalate both the drama and lunacy. Some were certainly better than others; I found the gonzo madness of Asylum to be incredibly entertaining, while Coven and Freak Show each seemed to lose steam midway through. Part of it’s been simple fatigue and desensitization; we’ve been here before and we’ve seen that, so for AHS to shock, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk don’t just need to go further — they’ve got to sustain it over a 13-episode run.

It’s left me asking myself how to best evaluate the debut episode of the new season, Hotel, premiering tonight on FX. Should I focus on the visuals, or setting? Lady Gaga’s much-hyped acting debut? And then it hit me — the key is to judge American Horror Story on where it lives and breathes, in the realm of sheer, bizarre what-the-fuck-edness.

Judging from tonight’s premiere, this is going to be its best season yet, that of course with the exception of the remarkable season one.

American Horror Story: Hotel Review onThe opening credits incorporate the 10 Commandments into the visuals, which is interesting, given what a sizable debt this project owes to Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.” Granted, there’s a fine line between homage and heist, but at the very least, Murphy (who directed the 90-minute premiere, co-written with collaborator Brad Falchuk) should be grateful that “Thou Shalt Not Steal” doesn’t specifically address the propriety of liberal borrowing.

Filled with arresting imagery, much of the action takes place in a beyond-creepy L.A. hotel, beginning with a couple of beautiful European tourists who make the mistake of booking online — and not checking the distance from Universal Studios. The long, sloping hallways include weird sounds and images and spectral tykes, to the point where all that’s missing is a kid racing around on a tricycle.

Of course, getting to one of the rooms requires dealing with a not-very-helpful desk clerk (Kathy Bates, naturally) and her sidekick, played by Denis O’Hare, who goes by the name Liz Taylor. The strange doings at the hotel, and an anonymous phone call, bring unwanted attention from a local detective (Wes Bentley). Not surprisingly, he’s haunted by his past.

As for Gaga, she spends much of her time with the equally striking Matt Bomer, and the two are introduced via a wordless sequence in which they lure a young couple back to the hotel, where the duo resides. In keeping with “American Horror Story’s” habit of sexualizing violence, and vice versa, suffice it to say that nobody should expect to get their security deposit back.

American Horror Story: Hotel promotional images (FX)At the heart of “American Horror Story” is an obvious love of movies, as well as a clear desire, tinged with naughtiness, to push boundaries as far as FX’s “Oh what’s the use?” censors will allow. That said, there’s almost an indifference to story — after the premiere, it’s hard to see a huge motivation to watch in order to unlock the show’s lingering mysteries — while luxuriating in an atmosphere that, among other things, includes particularly appropriate use of a certain Eagles song.

Whatever the shortcomings, the extraordinarily well-timed addition of Gaga to the mix should render any naysaying moot, practically speaking, establishing this as a sort-of event that plenty of people will feel obligated to check out (or in). Viewed that way, Gaga’s primary role is to help bait the hook, at one point describing the hotel to an outsider by purring, “Maybe this place is special.”

But at the end of the day, the trick with American Horror Story is that it can all go wildly off the rails at any time, and when the show is at its very best, it often feels like it is. It’s not just about running to the brink of madness; it’s about running up and stopping just before you topple, and getting a good long look into the abyss while you sway. But I still can’t get some of the images from the first episode of Hotel out of my brain, and that’s just what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk want. We’ll see where the rest of the season is headed (I have some ideas), and if they’ll truly be able to top themselves week after week — but it’s going to be a lot of fun watching them try.

American Horror Story: Hotel promotional image (FX)

Image:FX Network