After spending last season under the big top, FX’s hit anthology series American Horror Story returns to the airwaves for another outing called Hotel. This time, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are moving the action to Los Angeles, and into the Hotel Cortez, an art-deco monument where depravity is not only welcomed, but encouraged.
The season premiere, aptly titled Checking In, suffers from many of the same problems that have plagued the opening episode of nearly every previous installment – chief among them an enormous cast of characters and a very limited time in which to introduce them. In fact, despite that fact that the premiere episode spans 90 minutes (62 without commercials), we still haven’t seen returning stars Angela Bassett or Evan Peters yet.
But let’s talk about the characters we do meet in the premiere, shall we? There’s Iris (Kathy Bates), the ill-tempered front desk attendant who shares a complicated past with Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson), a junkie who may or may not be a ghost. Then there’s John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a homicide detective involved in a sadistic game of cat-and-mouse with a serial killer, and whose missing son might be one of the mysterious children wandering the halls of the Cortez.
And of course, let’s not forget The Countess (Lady Gaga) and her lover Donovan (Matt Bomer), who get their kicks by bringing other couples back to their penthouse suite for blood-soaked bouts of group sex. But that guy with waxy skin, a featureless face, and a strap-on that looks like a power drill? Don’t expect to learn much about him – he’s just here to rape a heroin addict to death for reasons that are never made clear.
Yes, American Horror Story: Hotel continues to showcase the gratuitous amounts of sex and violence that have been one of the show’s trademarks – our introduction to The Countess culminates in a lengthy orgy that is probably the most graphic display of sexuality ever featured on basic cable, and the aftermath looks like something that would feel right at home in an episode of True Blood.
But torture and titillation is about the extent of what American Horror Story: Hotel has to offer, at least in the premiere. The production design is top-notch here, but there’s a lot of style over substance, as if the creative team just wanted to find out how much bizarre shit they could stuff into a single episode. And there’s certainly plenty of that, but an over-reliance on the use of fish-eye lenses and a repetitive goth soundtrack, combined with scenes that don’t really seem to have any real bearing on the overall narrative, don’t really give us much incentive to extend our stay at the Hotel Cortez.
By the time American Horror Story: Hotel wraps up its first episode, there seem to be two major plot threads that will carry us through the season: one involving Lowe’s decision to move into the mysterious Room 64 to keep his family safe from his nemesis, and another that finds a fashion mogul purchasing the Cortez, much to the chagrin of the staff. Both are somewhat intriguing, but not exactly the kind of thing that will compel us to tune in next week. We’ll see how things fare in the second episode, and whether Murphy and Falchuk can get things back on track, but right now we’re leaning toward checking out early and finding accommodations elsewhere.