'American Horror Story: Hotel': TV Review

Lady Gaga struts, but does she act?

A hairless mole man with a killer dildo? Ryan Murphy and company are back.

Because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are as interested in subtlety as Mad Men was interested in fire-breathing dragons, the premiere of the new installment of American Horror Story, aptly titled Hotel, builds to a rather crucial use of The Eagles' "Hotel California."

See, I don't know if you've heard this, but at the Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The same appears to be true of the Hotel Cortez, the art deco-festooned downtown Los Angeles lodgings at the center of American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts with a loopy, bonus-size episode Wednesday night on FX.

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If last year's installment, Freak Show, was too frustratingly literal in terms of plot points and its freaks-as-all-outsiders metaphor for some viewers, Hotel will be a welcome return to oblique storytelling, loopy Freudian psychobabble and addiction undertones. If, however, you like your American Horror Story chapters with a clear dramatic thrust and a couple of sympathetic characters, you can just wait for American Horror Story: Election Season, or whatever we're treated to in 2016.

When it comes to Hotel, the eyes have it. One of the season's first victims, credited only as Man Nailed to Headboard, still survives despite the removal of both his tongue and his eyes, kicking off an orgy of ocular obsession. I feel confident that no TV show in history has ever featured so many shots exaggerated by fish-eye lenses, a motif borrowed from hotel door peepholes but also from the general sense of surveillance at the Hotel Cortez. Matt Bomer's Donovan enjoys guy liner, Denis O'Hare's Liz Taylor is obsessed with the Egyptian stylings of Cleopatra and Kathy Bates' character, she of the oversize spectacles, is named Iris. These are the things you're supposed to notice in American Horror Story: Hotel, because if you don't properly acknowledge all of Murphy and company's various influences and idees fixes, they'll only be made more obvious next time.

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Combining The ShiningSeven and Dante's InfernoHotel only barely hints at an overarching season plot even with more than 60 minutes of premiere airtime.

There's a whole lot of killing going on, but I can't say for sure how many killers there are and how many of the killers are actually real and how many are stand-ins for, say, drugs and alcohol or gluttony.

Wes Bentley plays John Lowe — presumably conjuring up images of both anonymity and descent — a detective investigating a series of murders tied to a mysterious voice that taunts him on the phone. Is that killer related to a personal tragedy from John's past? Probably. Is that killer related to the freaky, hairless mole man with the jewel-encrusted dildo raping people to death? Probably not. And what of Donovan and his impeccably dressed cohort The Countess (Lady Gaga), who live in the Cortez penthouse and enjoy classic horror movies, group sex and bloodshed? And what of the mysterious Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson), who seems to loiter in the hotel unglued from a different era in which leopard blazers were more stylish?

Hearkening back to the original AHS offering (Murder House), the initial installment of Hotel is determined to make you wonder which characters are alive, which characters are dead, which characters are manifestations of some ill-born id and which characters are just Murphy's friends dropping by for a day or two of what I'm sure must be some of Hollywood's finest craft services.

Don't expect to commit to any answers early, because cast regulars and semi-regulars, including Angela Bassett, Evan Peters and Finn Wittrock, have yet to appear. In fact, there are whole aspects to Hotel that have been discussed prominently — several actors have been announced as playing famous serial killers — that don't even get a nod in the first hour. 

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Outside of the wacky camera angels, stomach-churning editing, pulsing plasmas and polymorphous perversity, the best reason to watch American Horror Story is always to see what fun games Murphy and Falchuk have given the actors to play, though compared with Freak Show, this is emerging as less of a goofy acting showcase.

Lady Gaga, effectively stepping in for Jessica Lange, has gotten most of the early publicity for her extended acting debut. After an hour, it remains to be seen how Gaga will handle extended dialogue or emotional volatility, but she's initially just being asked to embody a visual conceit, which she does convincingly. She struts in high fashion with confidence, she does near-nudity without self-consciousness and she has a feral resemblance to Nosferatu star Max Schreck, which might seem accidental except that several characters attend a cemetery screening of the F.W. Murnau classic.

Bates is playing grumpy, Paulson strung out and Bentley intense, which all three actors do well, even if it seems limited. One can imagine Paulson coming in and saying, "After playing conjoined twins last year, I can't wait to see what's in store! Oh. Frizzy hair? OK." Bomer and O'Hare glam it up in two very different and amusing ways, and the most memorable of the premiere performances comes from Max Greenfield, as an ill-fated, peroxide heroin addict.

Freak Show played like Murphy and Falchuk were determined to garner as many acting Emmy nominations as possible. The result was six nominations, but no wins. This year's target will surely be production design recognition for Mark Worthington, whose realization of the Hotel Cortez is rather tremendous and almost justifies Murphy warping every frame to fit in as many carpets, doorways and chandeliers as possible. The continuity of the set is particularly impressive and we can expect every subsequent episodic director to echo Murphy's pleasure in soaring up and down hallways and swooping through lobbies. The Cortez isn't a character in Hotel, it's the show.

I've only made it through two out of four AHS seasons — and that didn't include Freak Show, which I thought had the franchise's most accessible beginning. Early on, Hotel hasn't hooked me with its storytelling, but it's always fun to see what the series does with its repertory acting company and with new additions. Throw in the normal grotesquerie and visual panache and that should keep me going for a while, even if all of the humor appears to have been funneled into Scream Queens. If there's a great thing about American Horror Story, it's that, shared-universe nonsense aside, you're always free to check in — and, unlike guests at the Hotel Cortez, you can definitely leave.