Like the first season, the fifth season of horror anthology series American Horror Story (AHS) takes us back to Los Angeles, into a dark, perverse hotel. And like each season that preceded it, it’s an eclectic gourmet of gruesome eye candy, wrapped loosely around some kind of story – only this time, it’s more the former than the latter, and whether viewers should invest in an extended stay here remains to be seen.
The hotel is beset with deadly traps and secret passages, à la H. H. Holmes, haunted by the undead, and ruled with a glittering, iron fist by this season’s centerpiece, Lady Gaga, who replaces Jessica Lange from the first four outings. Gaga plays a vampiric, Elizabeth Bathory-esque character who is equal parts fashionista, serial killer, and master manipulator. It sounds good on paper, but Gaga – a musician, not an actress – feels like a poor replacement for Lange, and her performance leaves viewers unsure whether her deadpan stares and languid mannerisms are part of the act, or a sign of her lack of acting experience.
But there are other aspects to the show this year that make up for this. Firstly, I was incredibly disappointed with last year’s season, subtitled Freak Show – to such an extent that I considered withdrawing my viewership of the series altogether. Part of what made it so bad was the plastic, forgettable plot, which was poorly written and all over the place, and the goofy, over-the-top, too-humorous tone. Hotel, at least, remedies much of this. It has a brooding, ghastly feel; something on par with the grimness of Season Two, and it plods along through what narrative there is with a determined, steady pace.
That narrative, however, remains spotty. It’s a flaw that has detracted from this show since Season Three. And they try and fill in the gaps where there should be story with vapid scenes of gore and brutality. There’s no sophistication or elegance in any of those moments, for several reasons. One is that we don’t have someone like Lange to chew the scenery and lend to it a sense of style. Another is that there simply doesn’t feel as though there are any stakes here; we’re handed an assortment of awful characters (morally speaking) who do awful things to each other, and they don’t draw empathy from the viewer, meaning that pain and death on this show neither matters nor creates any true sense of tension or urgency. That AHS has normalized and commodified death, to the point where it’s yawn inducing to the audience, perhaps piques some interesting philosophical questions, but none with bearing on the show itself.
And yet, here’s the strange thing: despite the anecdotal emptiness of those scenes, they’re still one of the main reasons to keep watching, if you’re a horror fan. They’re more an exploration of brutality and experiment in what defines art, rather than anything that would contribute to the story at large. So for viewers this endless string of mayhem and violence is more akin to browsing the gore section of Tumblr than watching any cohesive, episodic tale. The showrunners are throwing everything at the wall, and we, like tourists with cameras in some twisted museum, are taking a step back and viewing it with the same excited uncertainty that we might assign to framed pieces of abstract art. And like such art, there’s just as little to glean from what’s going on throughout this show – at least on a surface level – but also plenty to take in, visually speaking.
This isn’t to say that AHS is compelling and intriguing because it’s somehow redefining the way a television series is made; rather, it’s making itself so eccentric and perverse that people are gathering simply to see the spectacle. And yes, the spectacle this year is wilder than it’s perhaps ever been, but it’s also a fractured one. And without the glue of good writing to hold these pieces together, they will scatter to the wind before Hotel is over, causing a drop in quality – probably from the middle point of the season – and continuing to roll downhill from there. And that’s something we’ve become accustomed to with AHS. It’s a fault of the writers and an ever-present flaw in doing things for shock value.
Lady Gaga notwithstanding, this season has some really great returning actors (Kathy Bates, Evan Peters, Chloe Sevigny), but their stellar performances can’t make up for what this series lacks. Until American Horror Story adds some brains to its blood, it will become as pallid and lifeless as its zombified characters. Hotel is crazy and bizarre enough to warrant weekly viewings for now, but this show is becoming the gold standard for ‘flash in the pan.’ At the end of the day, crazy, on its own, doesn’t make for good TV.
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