American Horror Story: Hotel and the Problem of Anthology Premieres [The Overthinkery Reclamation Project]

This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on October 9, 2015, just after the episode in question aired. 

American Horror Story is, on the whole, an enjoyable and well-made show. It feels a bit disingenuous even to refer to it as a ‘show’ and not as a collection of shows, like some sort of weird mismatched box set of programmes that just happen to share a bunch of actors and a flair for the horrifically camp. Or perhaps the camply horrific.

Anyway, one of the greatest opportunities and challenges of running an anthology series like AHS (again, I’m reluctant to so much as mention a series ‘like’ it, because I can’t really think of any others) is that every season gets a hard reset. Everything’s back to the beginning; we don’t know these characters, their motivations, the settings, or even the rules of the world in which we find ourselves. First episodes, then, are at the same time exciting and slightly disappointing, in that every first episode has to catch our attention enough to keep us watching while also setting up the basic groundwork to underlay everything that has to happen in the season going forward.

Hotel definitely passes on one of those counts, there’s no question about it. The other, I’m not so sure.

The show opens with a pair of Swedish (?) tourists, who make their arrival into the eponymous hotel and find themselves greeted by none other than Kathy Bates. Sorry, I mean Iris. One of the most interesting things about AHS as a whole is the repeated appearances of several actors across seasons, which has a slightly bizarre effect: simultaneously we’re made to feel reassured and welcomed into a familiar world, and thrown off by how jarringly apparent it is that these familiar faces are not who we’ve become used to them being. Anyway, the pair go up to their room, talk in Swedish (?) for a bit, encounter some creepy children and eventually have a zombie-looking fellow burst with aplomb from their mattress. It’s at this point that I start to wonder what Hotel is trying to be, a feeling that goes through peaks and troughs as the episode rolls on.

I’m not going to recap the entire episode, but it’s hard to review it without having to mention several different plot lines. The episode connects the majority of its characters only by location, and we’re left wondering how the many lives we get a glimpse of are going to intertwine. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as it does evoke intrigue and, as the vast majority of the hour seems carefully designed to do, a general feeling of disorientation and curiosity, but it does make the whole thing feel like more of an anthology than AHS as a whole.

Aside from the aforementioned Swedes (?), we take peeks into the curious activities of Sarah Paulson as some sort of afro’d junkie killer, Kathy Bates and son as receptionist and… son, Dennis O’Hare as a slightly vaguely defined employee who nevertheless seems one of the most interesting characters thus far (O’Hare has a habit of showing up in less than central roles and making every scene he’s in completely about him), and… oh, yeah, Lady Gaga’s in it too.

Gaga’s scenes are possibly the most attention-grabbing of the episode, and probably my least favourite. I don’t have anything against gore and sex, but my God. You know what I’m talking about. I can’t forget what I’m talking about, much as I wish I could. I’ve never been afraid of blood as such, but there’s definitely such a thing as too much blood. Especially when it ends up on kissing lips. It’s during every moment that Lady Gaga’s on the screen that I feel most as I suspect Hotel wants me too: intrigued and terrified. I do miss Jessica Lange, but I will admit Gaga’s a better fit for this particular character. Side note: I’ve never really seen her face, but she either naturally has or is very good at putting on a really fucking terrifying face. Sounds a bit insulting, but it’s a plus in this role.

We also get a few minutes with Wes Bentley as the character I like the most so far, a slightly Will Graham-like detective with family problems and what looks like a real thing for messed-up killers. It’s not the most original of character archetypes (there’s someone with almost the exact same backstory in pretty much every work of fiction to feature police officers, from Dirty Harry to Dexter) but Bentley’s near-trademark set jaw carries it off pretty well. His scenes are also welcome for being the ones with the most actual plot, something the rest of the episode is markedly lacking.

I wish I could leave it here, but I have to talk about that scene. I have a grudging respect for a show that can get someone of Max Greenfield’s mainstream appeal (thanks largely to the excellent New Girl) to appear in a single episode only to get raped and killed – it’s almost reminiscent of Hannibal managing to get Zachary Quinto in basically to play an angry guy followed immediately by a corpse – but I don’t know how I feel about how it was done. Whatever this zombie-dildo-Pan’s-Labyrinth-whacko guy is meant to be, it’s almost definitely too much to have such a long scene of just… humping and screaming. It makes me feel sick and disgusted and really quite legitimately afraid of having to see him again, which I suppose was sort of the point, but there’s an underlying dislike of the scene itself for depicting his acts.

So where do we go from here? I have absolutely no idea. Hotel‘s gone the route of grabbing as much attention as it possibly can with episode one, eschewing any real narrative work in favour of imagery. It’s not necessarily a bad decision, but how it shapes up will absolutely depend in retrospect upon the rest of the season. So far, Hotel feels like a weird sort of mismash of previous seasons: Murder House‘s tendency to gleefully declare ‘EVERYONE’S DEAD AND A GHOST’; Asylum‘s love of putting its characters through the worst things it can possibly think of; Coven‘s… um… colour scheme (Okay, Coven‘s a bit of an outlier.) and Freak Show‘s unified setting, in which every character is first defined by whether they’re part of the titular community or afraid of it.

I have hope for the season, because so far I’ve enjoyed AHS. But after episode one, the only thing I can really say about how I feel is this:

We’ll see.

3 comments

  1. When Netflix was talking about doing a Zelda television show, I saw a suggestion online that they should do the AHS model of having each season standalone and reuse the same actors to capture the way the Zelda games often have the same “people,” but they are different incarnations of an idea rather than literally being the same person. I honestly think that’s a great idea for a Zelda show and I’m a little sad it never came to fruition.
    On a more related note to your post, I’ve never watched American Horror Story but this description of the events of the episode put me firmly in the camp of “hard pass,” haha. 😅

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  2. That would have been a great idea! AHS is hit-and-miss: campy shtick, but fun, at best, and just too much at worst. It’s usually at least enjoyable, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it! (Actually, I would recommend the first three seasons, which are pretty smart. It gets campier and SHOCK VALUEier after that, which isn’t NECESSARILY bad but I think has done it no favours in terms of making it more accessible to its audience.)

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  3. In respect that I haven’t yet seen season 7 the cult and season 8 the apocalypse, I have so far enjoyed watching AHS, there is only one season so far that I found hard to watch because it took a bit of getting in to each episode, but the more I got in to it the more interesting it became, which was season 4, the freak show. Season 5 the hotel season, I enjoyed as it showed the cop trying to figure out who the killer is but later turns out to be himself and his family end up moving in to the hotel. I loved Lady Gaga’s character. Blood and all that happened in season 5 didn’t really bother me, but the one that Im like I feel like I need to watch it more but just like wow this is mental and the way it was filmed, I thought was amazing because it didn’t look like a show, it had looked more like a documentary and the fact that it ended with Lana Winters from the Asylum season, I found rather interesting and the fact that each season has some connection in some way. Was basically season 6 the Roanoke one, which I thought has been more blood than any other season so far. I think AHS is just like any other programme, it can be like marmite, you either love it or hate it.

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