There’s no doubting it, American Horror Story is an odd show. At its best, it’s scary (as the title would suggest), provocative and thrilling. At its worst, it’s a mess. The opening thirty minutes of season five sadly fall firmly into the latter camp, acting as a hyperactive montage of all of the worst bits of American Horror Story; hyperactive, disconnected, and void of any distinguishable narrative structure.
For the first half of the episode the excitable camera with its frequent (annoying) fish-eye lens shots roams the corridors and rooms of the show’s new home, the Hotel Cortez, giving us a peak at the admittedly beautiful new setting for the series. What we see occurring within the walls of the Hotel is less than beautiful though. I’m all for crazy, but it can’t be at the expense of any real structure. The show’s never been one to back away from a scattergun approach to its horror devices, but they really went all out on that front right from the offset, seemingly throwing oddities at the wall to see what sticks. Hotel Cortez is a dark place…we get it!
At the centre of the excesses of this opening segment is series newcomer Max Greenfield (New Girl) seemingly channelling Finn Wittrock’s Dandy from last season’s Freak Show as the drug addled Gabriel; who finds himself violently raped by a ghoulish figure within minutes. If Game of Thrones was accused of being gratuitous during a rape scene in season five’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, then those calls certainly apply here tenfold. It’s excessive, and it’s all a bit much.
Thankfully the second half of the episode makes an improvement, actually providing the beginnings of the narrative set up for the season, giving an insight into the lost souls of the Hotel Cortez and its new guests. Kathy Bates (Titanic) returns to the series as the Hotel’s receptionist Iris, and Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) is back as junkie Sally, a role she seems to revel in. Rounding out the residents of the Hotel are Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare), Donovan (Matt Bomer) and Elizabeth, played by Lady Gaga, who completely and utterly steals every scene she appears in. It turns out that not only can she act, Lady Gaga is actually pretty great, and perfect for the dark territories of an American Horror Story universe.
Also arriving at the Art Deco design Hotel Cortez is the new owner (another series newcomer), Cheyenne Jackson’s Will Drake, and detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), who features in some of the most effective scenes of the episode, many of which occur outside the walls of the Hotel, with the crazy dialled back a notch. Regular highlights of the show’s cast Evan Peters and Angela Bassett are yet to appear, but will be doing so down the line.
Though the episode is plot light, due in no small part to its self-indulgent first half, the plot seeds that are planted give hope that there is a fair amount to look forward to. Showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk might not be able to make a great deal of narrative sense in the opening hour, but they certainly set the tone well. We’re in for a dark, dark season of American Horror Story. Lets just hope that dark doesn’t mean sacrificing any and all semblance of nuance, subtlety and structure.
A unforgivably scattered mess of a first half of Hotel’s debut leaves the second half with all the leg work, creating a hugely unbalanced episode. There are glints of hope for what’s to come in the second half of the episode, but when literally 50% of the runtime is under-utilised it’s difficult to recommend.
Rating (out of 5):