It’s gotten to the point in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story franchise where we welcome familiar faces, wondering how they’ll be costumed and accessorized: Oooh, look, Sarah Paulson is wearing a blonde fright wig and the dead stare of a junkie! Denis O’Hare is dressing as a woman named Liz Taylor and reading James Joyce’s Ulysses! Kathy Bates is wearing big, Swifty Lazar-style glasses and manning the front desk of the Hotel Cortez!
That Los Angeles building is a beautifully designed, Art Deco style pile, and Murphy, who directed the first episode, makes his camera glide along the floor of the hallways, the better to emphasize the Hotel Cortez’s vast gloom, and remind you of Stanley Kubrick’s similar shots in The Shining. In the premiere, there are lots of new yet familiar faces, most prominently Lady Gaga as a gaga version of a 1940s tough broad who looks at a good-looking guy and delivers a line with hardboiled-novel imagery: “Your boy has a jaw-line for days.” (May I suggest to Ryan Murphy that the next AHS be a Western — a variation on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, with Gaga in the Joan Crawford role?)
What’s the plot of the new series? I’m not spoilin’, but given the preceding AHS chapters, you won’t be surprised that there’s a lot of blood-drenched murder, blonde scream queens, and lots of lethal drugs (two characters shooting up China White made me misty-eyed for my late-1970s days in punk-rock L.A. with Darby Crash of the Germs).
The new AHS is, alas, mostly an exercise in style. Its flimsy plot, at least this early in its game, is something left over from a bad Ross Macdonald novel: glum detective (Wes Bentley) searching for clues to murders while also haunted by a son who disappeared years ago. The episode culminates with a grisly scene set to the frightening music of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” That choice is a little too on-the-nose; Ryan Murphy could use a new music director: Wouldn’t Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” have been more apposite?
“Maybe this place is special,” says Gaga at one point. The jury’s still out on that one, Lady.
American Horror Story: Hotel airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.