‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ Trades Lange for Gaga — and It’s Surprisingly Refreshing

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It’s fitting that American Horror Story: Hotel initiates a pop star’s transition from music to television with a scene that’s essentially a hybrid of the two.

Our first glimpse of Lady Gaga, the new star of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s well-oiled machine of camp and cameos, is a seduction sequence, following the singer’s mysterious hotel owner and Matt Bomer’s not-so-mysterious arm candy as they bring another couple home from movie night at the local cemetery. What follows is sexy, gory, wordless, and set entirely to She Wants Revenge’s “Tear You Apart.” Basically, it’s a music video.

The scene is also Murphy and Falchuk’s first answer to the central question facing Hotel: what’s American Horror Story without Jessica Lange?

As it turns out, the answer might be “refreshed.” Lange wasn’t in the habit of doing anything less than excellent work during her four seasons with AHS, but as Freak Show made clear, the arcs Murphy and Falchuk wrote for her characters were becoming increasingly tired. And though Lange can act the hell out of whatever’s thrown at her, she could only have “aging diva reacts badly to loss of looks/power/etc.” thrown at her so many times before it gets old. Enter Lady Gaga, who as a 29-year-old acting novice is about as far from Lange, and the thematic ground her characters cover, as one can get.

But even though Gaga, as the mysterious and malicious owner of the Art Deco-style Hotel Cortez, may be new, much of American Horror Story remains the same even without its signature star. Like its inaugural season Murder House, Hotel is set in contemporary Los Angeles; its premiere even features a cameo from Marcy (Christine Eastbrook), the Harmons’ realtor from way back when. The ensemble cast remains as jam-packed with veterans as ever, from Denis O’Hare as a drag queen named Liz Taylor to Kathy Bates as Iris the grouchy desk attendant — with appearances from Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, and Angela Bassett promised further down the line. And the gore remains as over-the-top as ever, starting with Max Greenfield’s rape at the hands of a monster with a corkscrew dildo and proceeding from there.

As that last sentence indicates, those turned off by Ryan Murphy and his many excesses won’t find a palatable entry point in Hotel. Though FX only provided a single episode for advance review — a setup, no less than Quentin Tarantino noted, that leaves critics’ ability to evaluate a show’s strengths and weaknesses somewhat hamstrung — the early warning signs of classic Murphy deal breakers are there. Anyone sensitive to tactless portrayals of sexual violence and addiction will want to look elsewhere; sticklers for coherence will see red flags in the half-dozen subplots squeezed into the premiere alone, with more sure to come.

Instead, Hotel‘s tweaks will appeal to viewers who, like this one, are generally willing to meet AHS halfway unless the Lana Del Rey covers outweigh the insane asylum dance numbers. Gaga, whose theatricality fits in perfectly with American Horror Story‘s precise-yet-chaotic aesthetic, is a breath of fresh air. So, oddly enough, is Wes Bentley as a detective whose search for both a serial killer and his missing son leads him to the Cortez. After four seasons of Lange as antiheroine, it’s interesting to see a straight-up hero at the center of Hotel, particularly — I can’t believe I’m typing this — a male one. (This is what happens when you’ve spent more time in the Murphyverse than any sane person should.)

Finally, Hotel is noticeably scarier than the past couple installments of American Horror Story. In fairness, this is because they weren’t particularly trying to be; Coven, in particular, was there for the wacky undead threesomes and wasn’t about to apologize. But to armchair psychoanalyze a bit, the launch of an outright comedy in the form of Fox’s Scream Queens may have been good for American Horror Story. Rather than stretch Murphy and Falchuk too thin, Scream Queens might be functioning as an outlet for their campier, comic impulses, leaving AHS with more undiluted scare factor.

That means Hostel-style torture scenes and blood that, unlike Scream Queens’, can’t be easily clocked as corn syrup. Gaga, too, is allowed to play the full villain to Bentley’s hero, with Murphy and Falchuk using her over-the-top wardrobe and slightly alien vibe — even in her normcore phase! — to their advantage, giving her Countess an uncanny, menacing aura. It’s enough to rekindle my interest in American Horror Story until Hotel flies off the rails or Gaga, too, wears herself out. Whichever comes first.