Well, that’s it: they’ve fucked it. They’ve gone too far. There’s only one way to describe the premier of American Horror Story’s fifth season, Hotel, and that’s indefensible.
The show had always threatened jumping the shark, but here they’ve less jumped it than nonconsensually sodomized it in a seedy motel room. Series one and two balanced so carefully outrageous camp (Jessica Lange feeding the corpse of her husband to her dogs, a possesed Lily Rabe delightedly choosing a cane with which to beat her asylum-bound charges) and genuine emotional stakes (ugh, the “Never trust a drunk” scene between Jessica Lange and Francis Conroy in season two, basically), but series three and four seemed to throw any kind of semblance of over-arching plot to the wind in favour of…witches? The sentient head of Kathy Bates? Denis O’Hare getting Freaks-ed?
Suddenly, they weren’t dedicated to creating interesting, thematically coherent stories with plenty of dark horror elements; they wanted to make hyper-camp, unbelievably bad taste exploitation flicks that yeah, did occasionally hit some televisual sweet spot and remain kind of entertaining. Every season, there seemed less and less that was compelling about the show. Sure, there were a few great performances, some good scenes, some great lines, but none of it hung together as anything other than a series of halfway connected vignettes. With a big overhaul in place for their fifth year, I was hoping that they might reclaim some of the decent stuff that had made the first two seasons so compelling. But with the first episode of season five, Checking In, out this week, I think I may have lost the last vestiges of goodwill I had towards American Horror Story.
Right, let’s get this out of the way. Here are the things I liked about that episode: Kathy Bates’ acting, Sarah Paulson having a legitimately sassy role, the tantalising promise of Evan Peters. There. That’s it. I’m done. Wes Bentley’s performance as the tragic cop who winds up living at the hotel is good, but everything about his crime-scene investigations comes off as cut-price Hannibal (mainly because he reminds me of Chilton a little bit) with elaborate and violent mutliations that serve no actual plot purpose beyond having a guy’s penis glued inside a dead girl’s vagina. And hey, that starts us off on my first major gripe with this episode: the outrageous amounts of sexualised violence.
Look, I have a pretty strong stomach for almost any kind of violence. I watched The Human Centipede 3, for Christ’s sakes. I can appreciate violence when it’s either done well or adds something to the plot; outside of that, I’m not really going to enjoy it, and it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to believe that it’s necessary. And this episode…yeesh. There were hot blonde teenagers being force-fed in their skivvies, there was a shockingly unsexy soft-porn sequence where a vampiric Lady Gaga (more on her later) and her partner hump then murder an unsuspecting young couple, and there was, of course, the scene where a dope fiend got violently sodomized with a spike.
Honestly, my rule for these kinds of things is that if Se7en wouldn’t do it, there was probably a good fucking reason for that. And that reason is that showing, in pretty graphic detail, a man getting raped with a giant spike only enlightens the viewers as to what a man getting sodomized with a fucking spike looks like. The scene genuinely upset me, and also made me really angry, because Ryan Murphy and his team have been throwing around sexualised violence a lot in their shows recently, often to no real conclusion. This was just an extension of that in the worst possibe way: we learnt nothing, we were told nothing, and it all seemed like an excuse to show us something “shocking” and “edgy”, trivialising the pretty grotesque act. Do you remember the rape scene in series two, where the camera slowly pans in on Sarah Paulson’s traumatised face, and how impactful that was? Compare it to this scene: vile, exploitative, and simply there to feed the dumb gross-out violence of a certain subset of horror fans (note: this is the second time someone has been bummed to death in this show. Just so we’re keeping count). I hated it. I HATED it.
But let’s focus on some other elements of the show. Firstly, Lady Gaga: if there’s one thing I could say for certain that Lady Gaga has, it’s presence, but for some reason it just didn’t translate on screen. Her line readings veered between terrible and just bearable, but she was a nothing of a character beyond the outrageous outfits and dirty, kinky sex, neither of which she really carries off. Her partner, Matt Bomer, is playing a nineties boyband star- not literally, but take a look at these photos and tell me I’m wrong:
-and he was fine, but in a completely forgettable way. The two of them had a kind of Spike-and-Drusilla vibe, if Joss Whedon had had the bad sense to show the audience the two of them constantly boning. It’s their relationship that makes it interesting, not the constant soft-porny shots of Matt Bomer’s ass. AHS has a long and proud history of showing copious amounts of man-ass, but this was too much, even for me (have you seeeeeen the pictures of Finn Wittrock this season though? Can’t handle that hotness, because at least 30% of my attraction towards this show is the unbelievably gorgeous men).
More than anything, the show felt like a series of disconnected vignettes. If you’ve had the misfortune of watching Kanye West’s godawful Runaway, then that’s the best point of reference I can find for Checking In. It was dumb, all over the place, with apparently no real urge to go anywhere or do anything or explain any of the reasoning behind it’s often tasteless choices. American Horror Story has always been trashy TV, but this went beyond that and into the realm of exploitation for the sake of exploitation. The whole thing reads like Gaga’s own Bad Romance video: occasionally cool, wierdly headwormy, but ultimately signifying nothing.