FX's successful horror anthology American Horror Story returned this week, for a fifth season now set inside a creepy Art Deco hotel in downtown L.A. I've watched every episode of AHS, so it's clearly doing something right, but I would never say this is an objectively good drama. It has flashes of inspiration and has produced some truly freakish imagery (the best this side of Hannibal), but it's not exactly scary. It's just reliably weird and crazy, with cool visuals and a slumming-it cast who nevertheless enter into the spirit of things. Perhaps because you rarely win awards for appearing in horror films come Oscar time, but AHS is somehow a regular fixture at the Emmys and Golden Globes.
I've dabbled with reviewing AHS weekly, but it seems like a pointless exercise in many ways. At least for me. There haven't been any believable characters to anchor the stories since season 1's "Murder House" (when the unwitting family Harmon family moved into their haunted home), and I've never fully understood why the first two seasons are held in such high-esteem. Season 2's "Asylum" started quite well, but had completely fizzled two-thirds into its run. That's a trend AHS follows most years—"Coven" had a lighter magical touch which was good, but the story soon went complete off-the-rails; and "Freak Show" covered a conspicuous lack of plot by being relentlessly nasty and gross.
Will "Hotel" be any different this year?
Well, there's a few reasons season 5 may improve on the previous three seasons. Jessica Lange (who became an unexpected muse of the writers) isn't returning for "Hotel", so we've swerved what would undoubtedly have been another of her strange matriarchal roles. That was getting incredibly boring. And the hotel setting suggests a parade of 'normal' people will be coping with the weirdness; including Wes Bentley's tortured John Lowe, a detective chasing 'The Ten Commandments Killer' and searching for his missing son. But who knows how long any semblance of normality will last, because this show's stock-in-trade has become its grim and ghastly situations and bonkers characterisations...
Lady Gaga has a regular role as 'The Countess', a fashionista with a vampire fetish who slashes people's necks with a finger blade and drinks their arterial blood during foursomes with her handsome boyfriend (Matt Bomer). Veteran star Sarah Paulson plays a character called 'Hypodermic Sally', and Denis O'Hare returns as a bald transvestite receptionist. Oh, and here's a so-called Addiction Demon who has a drill bit dildo. Yeah, forget normal.
Maybe it's best to just embrace the madness. That's largely what I've been doing from the very beginning. I've long ago given up expecting a decent story and characters to invest in. AHS is one of the few horror dramas which has enough budget, and the right attitude, to do things that were once unthinkable on TV. You don't watch AHS to be scared, really—you watch it because you don't know what the f*** it's going to do next. It'll probably be something misguided and in very poor taste (Lily Rabe's due to appear as real-life killer Aileen Wuornos), and don't go expecting anything to make a lick of sense—ever—but where else can you see two blonde Swedish girls discovering a scrawny man sewn into their hotel room's mattress? Only here.