As the cliché has it, we each have a devil and an angel sitting on our shoulders. Ryan Murphy, the prolific creator of outsize entertainments including Glee, The New Normal, Scream Queens, and American Horror Story, in all five of its iterations, has a raging bitch and an animate Hallmark card sitting on his. His shows are at once bold, vicious, rude, and fueled by a nearly sacramental belief in outsiders’ ability to overcome cruelty, disdain, bigotry, and oppression—cruelty, disdain, bigotry, and oppression that have been dreamed up by Ryan Murphy and rained down on his characters like the 10 plagues reimagined as camp tortures. (Glitter blood! Frogs in legwarmers!) When Murphy’s work is in balance, when neither the bitch nor the trite sentiment is too powerful, it features both a hatred of bullies and countless supercharged bullies. When it is out of wack, needless cruelty reigns one minute, saccharine sappiness the next.
American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth season of the FX anthology series, was the worst installment in the series’ history and a prototypical example of Murphy off kilter. Set at a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, the season had too many characters, no compelling plot, and a blinding devotion to Jessica Lange. It featured all the blood and guts expected from American Horror Story—a serial-killing clown with a rotted maw, an entitled sociopath who bathed in blood, a mercenary con man looking to murder freaks and sell their corpses to a medical oddity museum—while banging a headache-inducing timpani about what it means to be an outsider, a designation that comes with danger but also confers community and humanity. It was gross, not for the viscera, but for the cheesy, unfocused messaging about how the real freaks are the normals.
But the virtue of American Horror Story, especially for an auteur like Murphy, whose shows invariably start with great vigor before flagging too soon (see: all of his shows), is that each season is a new beginning. American Horror Story: Hotel, which starts Wednesday night on FX, feels like a retrenchment after Freak Show’s failings. Set at the terrifying, haunted, perhaps vampire-operated Hotel Cortez, it too involves a band of freaks—the permanent residents of the hotel include a deformed Cremaster-type being—but they don’t make too much of their outsider status, what with being busy torturing, raping, seducing, and murdering anyone unfortunate enough to rent a room.
The first episode of Hotel, the only one made available to critics, in AHS fashion, tears through plot like a kid through wrapping paper. It’s hard to say with any certainty if this will be a good installment, but one can try to read the signs, casting through past seasons like tea leaves, looking for predictions. The findings are auspicious. AHS: Hotel more obviously resembles the first two, better seasons of American Horror Story than it does the latter, lesser two. Like the first season, American Horror Story: Murder House, Hotel is set in the present day, in Los Angeles, in a space that seems to be haunted, or at least guided by a set of macabre metaphysical rules. (There is an overt connection between the murder house and the Hotel Cortez: They share a real estate agent.) And as with Murder House—and even more so, The Shining, which looms large over the proceedings—the drama seems like it will stem from normal humans foolishly taking up residence in a creepy abode.
Hotel, unlike Freak Show and its predecessor, Coven, starts relatively quietly. Sure, the two unlucky Swedish tourists who check into the Cortez have only been in their room for minutes before they discover something rancid sewed into their mattress, but there’s less banter, less explaining, fewer quips. The Cortez, which seems to be located in a junkie-plagued corner of Downtown Los Angeles, has a swank, plush, red, dead-quiet interior. The people who live there share its aesthetic. They don’t incessantly run their mouths. They are into red. And like Asylum, the best season of the show thus far, Hotel gets downright disturbing almost at the start, when a junkie, played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield, with bleach-blond hair, is anally raped, at length, by a humanoid creature with a metal spike for a penis. (This is, perhaps, leaning too hard on the tea leaves; gruesomeness is not in and of itself a sign of AHS’s quality. Still, Asylum was far more disturbing than the other installments, and its willingness to go gross was at least some of its power.)
There is, as ever, a large number of players. Residents of the Cortez include Kathy Bates as Iris, the surly concierge; Sarah Paulson as Hypodermic Sally, a ’90s goth with smoky eyes, crimped hair, and faux-leopard jacket; Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor, a longtime resident who swans around in resplendent blue eye shadow; and Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga as the power couple of the place, getting all decked out to go pick up another duo for a foursome that eventually involves canoodling in blood. Gaga’s character appears to be the Cortez’s HBIC, the fearsome, bloodthirsty figure who rules the roost, decking it out in contemporary art, and she may even have lured the fashion designer Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) to buy the Cortez. Gaga’s deep-throated, spacey contralto suits the part: Vampires, or whatever she is, should vamp.
The new resident to the hotel is Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), who first arrives at the hotel on a tipoff from a serial killer who has recently staged a crime scene in which adulterers in flagrante were impaled by a spike, the man’s eyes and tongue cut out, and his member crazy-glued inside his partner for good measure. (Another influence on this season is Hannibal, with its aesthetically composed corpses.) The killer sends Lowe to the Cortez, where he takes a nap and awakes to catch a glimpse of one of the young white-blond twins running around the place, who may or may not be his missing son.
Lowe is not just a cop. He’s a doting father and loving husband to Alex (Chloë Sevigny), shattered by the loss of his son. (The least realistic thing about the first episode, which is saying something, arrives when Sevigny’s character tells John that it’s torturous to look at him because of how much he resembles their son. Wes Bentley looks like a lot of things, but a towhead is not one of them.) John provides the note of contrast and relief so delicious in the early goings of a scary story: the skeptical person who does not yet know fear, and who, for just a little while, is safe to hang around with. He won’t be safe for long. By episode’s end, he is moving into the Cortez. May what he finds there be more Children of the Corn than corny.