After last season, it became clear that the American Horror Story franchise was riding down a steady decline. Asylum and Coven both hit and missed a variety of factors, depending on who you asked: we’ll take crazy people but leave the aliens; witches are cool but chill with the dutch angles. Neither season lived up to the dramatic preciseness of Murder House, but at the very least they were still watchable. Freak Show, however, was not. Its plot was full of dead ends and there was little gratifying about its gratuity (and by that I mean the musical numbers, not the violence). If the show’s failure is not evident by my scathing reviews, take the indisputable numbers: Freak Show was the most watched American Horror Story premiere to date at 6.13 million viewers. But by the time the finale aired, it had lost nearly half its viewership, as a mere 3.27 million people tuned in to see how the monstrosity concluded. The horror, indeed.
Still reeling from the dreadful season preceding it, no one could blame me for being considerably skeptical about how Hotel would fare. Rather than lapping up the numerous teaser trailers that trickled out last summer, I rolled my eyes. “The teasers are always better than the show itself,” I thought, ready to resign American Horror Story to the annals of television history as a show with great ideas but shitty execution.
Imagine then, to my shock and delight, that I didn’t just enjoy the season premiere of Hotel… I really enjoyed it.
From the first craning fish-eye shots of the Hotel Cortez’s art deco lobby, the episode reeked of American Horror Story, and for a moment there I was afraid that they had already lapsed into the old habit of relying on the look of the show to propel the plot. (Regardless of how one feels about the storylines or character development of any season of this show, the quality of the production design can never be disputed.) But even the visual composition already felt different. Where previous seasons would play with twisting camera angles, Hotel‘s movement through the elevator and hallways was elegant. The lights were dim but not dingy, and they didn’t just flicker, they flickered to the beat of the score. The dumb blonde tourists and white-haired children at the end of the corridor may have been derivative, but their presence immediately infused the show with that essential horror element that was entirely absent from Freak Show.
Conversely, the element of camp that Ryan Murphy loves so much, and that saturated Freak Show to such a degree that everyone watching was drowning in glitter by the end, was dialed back, then harnessed to form a diamond-encrusted, neon-lit package of fabulousness for Hotel. The dream of the 1980s is alive and thriving in Lady Gaga’s Countess and Matt Bomer’s Donovan as they float through the hotel, cocaine and guyliner and all. This pair is a glamhorror dream come true, especially when strutting through a graveyard to a showing of Nosferatu. (And a super steamy foursome was exactly what I wanted out of those beautiful people. Nevermind the blood.) Even Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor, the hotel’s resident bellhop/handywoman, oozed class as opposed to farce.
American Horror Story has been wont to toss in things that could be construed as symbolism, but rarely backs them up with much actual significance. Hotel‘s darkest moment was the gruesome rape of heroin-addicted Max Greenfield’s Gabriel by a pointy-phallaced faceless being. But instead of being carnage for its own sake (ahem), the act was one big metaphor for the toll that addiction has on the mental and physical wellbeing of its victim. Who would’ve guessed that this show could produce a moment actually meant something; particularly when Sarah Paulson’s Sally, obviously a junkie herself, appears in the room to demand love from Gabriel as a tear falls from her eye. It is the unlikely scene in any show that emits that kind of genuine grief and need of acceptance following such a horrific act, let alone a show as manic as American Horror Story can be. The scene went from chaotic to composed in seconds. It is a testament to the actors, of course, but it’s also emblematic of this show’s newfound ability to infuse its characters with substance.
Once Wes Bently’s stern cop, John Lowe, appeared, the show already felt more like Murder House than any of the seasons succeeding it, and that is a welcome and surprisingly good omen for Hotel. It had the same kind of tightness and nuance from the first season that you expect out of any good television show, but were things that American Horror Story tended to willingly ignore. This premiere episode gave us some detail into the lives of its characters but left plenty of room for discovery. The little hints of mystery it dropped, like the significance of 2:25 AM and the apparent immortality of the hotel’s inhabitants, piqued some curiosity about the season’s journey that doesn’t feel overwrought. (Looking at you, Anne Frank and Elsa Mars) Sarah Paulson seems to have accepted the torch passed on by Jessica Lange, but Gaga carries a similar kind of gravitas that can’t be overshadowed. Ryan Murphy’s new muse she may be, but her brand of weirdness is right at home on this show.
Despite my reverence towards what was accomplished here, I’m not ready to give Hotel a gold star simply for the efforts of its inaugural episode, because it’s not uncommon to be burned by this show based on the thrill of a solid season premiere. By now I know that a healthy dose of skepticism can curb any frustration drummed up by a disappointing season, and I’ll likely swallow that pill even through to this season’s finale. After all, the notion that the seasons are connected (here it’s Marcy’s appearance and the explanation of her dog that came from “unfortunate circumstances”) is just insufferable poppycock to make the show more buzz-worthy. Concluding the episode as “Hotel California” plays was a bit groan-enducing and totally on the nose, but really, so is American Horror Story. Yet somehow, the song and the show, still work.
Here’s to hoping, anyway.