As far as I can tell from Wednesday’s premiere, American Horror Story: Hotel is going to be about drugs, glamour, fabulous Art Deco interiors, and ever-increasing levels of physical and psychological violence.
There’s a lot I loved about the episode. The season’s setting, the Hotel Cortez, is an elegant old-Hollywood hotel gone to seed, your traditional ‘glamorous den of vice’ setup. The actors and the costumes are beautiful, and the camp is high as always. But there has been a lot of criticism, not all of it undeserved.
There’s a rape scene. It is gratuitous. There are problematic uses of gay tropes, as in all Ryan Murphy productions. There is, really, altogether more graphic maiming than strictly necessary. But that’s the thing. Nothing about this show is strictly necessary.
I want to quote one particularly damning review from Vanity Fair columnist Richard Lawson. He describes the show as having “a kitchen-sink style of Grand Guignolia that uses excess to mask its ineptitude.” My personal leanings aside, (“kitchen sink” and “Grand Guignol” being two of the phrases most likely to attract me to a show), I object to the concept that the excess of American Horror Story is an attempt to “mask” anything. Simply put, Lawson’s mistake here is that he is searching for something behind the excess, when excess is the whole point.
Lawson and others complain about the uneven pacing and many plot strands that make up this season’s first episode, as if we didn’t expect such things from a Ryan Murphy show. Disorientation and proliferation are two of the main tactics used throughout the seasons–see Asylum for a particularly good example. Stacks on stacks on stacks of storylines and tropes, arranged in such a way as to keep the viewer continually off balance. Perhaps it’s not high art, but it does exactly what it means to do.
American Horror Story: Hotel has problems. But it also has Lady Gaga living in a neon-lit penthouse and wearing a series of fabulous ensembles. Everyone’s faves are problematic, and American Horror Story remains one of mine.