TV Minus the TV: “Checking In” on American Horror Story: Hotel
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
Not too long ago, we all took a sobering look at the new horror-comedy Scream Queens and concluded that the people of America have finally begun to get wise to Ryan Murphy’s tricks. His clickbait television shows, trying extremely hard to hook viewers in with outrageous advertisements and highly shareable tidbits that never come close to adding up to a whole, now cater to a niche audience with perilously little interest in things like character or story, and tons of interest in things like quotes colorfully bitchy enough to RT and pseudo-feminist setpieces that might as well exist in an amoral vacuum.
Murphy left logic behind long ago in the process of dutifully pandering to his highly specific fanbase, but that absence of rationality is almost apropos in the man’s other flaming dumpster of a show, American Horror Story.
It wasn’t too many seasons ago that Murphy still gave a shit, at least making the outward appearance of effort to string his scenes together so that they might form a coherent narrative. It hardly worked; six or seven episodes in, Murphy would usually throw up his hands and throw coherence to the wind, piling on bizarre and stomach-churning spectacles to the point of numbness. What’s made this fifth season, subtitled Hotel, so special is that Murphy’s started out at the point of outright insanity and is now working from there. The show’s not equivalent to a drug experience, it’s more like being on drugs and then taking different, equally potent drugs.
Nothing of any significance really happens in the season premiere of Hotel, not as far as a viewer entering the milieu — the Hotel Cortez, a once-ritzy Californian palace — anew can tell. Sure, plenty of things take place, strictly speaking. But none of it leaves any impact on the viewer, or advances the story in any meaningful way, or illuminates anything about the characters other than that they are crazy and/or scary.
Murphy first introduces a pair of nubile Swedish tourists, about whom we learn nothing other than that they’re pissed that their accommodations aren’t closer to Disneyland, and that they intend on ingesting a cubic shitload of controlled substances once they get there. They serve no purpose in the story other than to be stripped down to their underwear and murdered in gruesome ways by Academy Award winner Kathy Bates.# Their deaths teach the audience nothing, and the complete absence of character development means that their deaths produce no emotional response. Murphy’s decision to use them as cannon fodder is the very definition of sadism.
Watching Hotel do its darnedest to scandalize an audience verging closer to complete desensitization with every passing week, it’s hard not to think of the classic Shakespearean quotation about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Of course, in this instance, we’d have to amend it slightly. “Checking In” is a tale told by a horny idiot, full of blood and fully exposed man-ass, signifying nothing. The general understanding between Hotel and those with enough self-loathing to watch it# dictates that nobody expects the film to be The Wire (or whatever), just that it’ll dish out enough diverting gross-outs to keep everyone engaged for an hour. But Murphy fails to follow through on this tacit pact on two counts: the buzzy depravity wears thin, and this thing runs for ninety goddamn minutes.
If anything, all the earlier season had going for them was the insatiable (and frequently inadvisable) originality of Murphy’s vision. Everything was theatrically over-the-top, like a Grand Guignol nightmare commingling with one of Tennessee Williams’ sweaty Southern homoerotic fantasies.# Even at this early juncture in Hotel’s game, Murphy already seems to be jacking swag wholesale, due to either creative exhaustion or lazy genuflection. He pretty much surgically attaches bits from The Shining and Halloween into his show, and that which hasn’t been shamelessly ripped off barely registers as shocking.
You’d think that after four seasons, Murphy would learn that structuring a show entirely around shock value is a losing game, because of course you can only top yourself so many times. He hasn’t, clearly, though his efforts to set a new standard of gore and discomfort occasionally yield marginally interesting results. Free the scene in which Lady Gaga and her boyfriend bring a couple back from an outdoor showing of Nosferatu for a foursome and midcoitally double-murder them from its context, and that sounds like something half-worth watching!
And then Murphy has to go and irrevocably ruin everything with the rape scene.
I’ve gone on record in the past as an conscientious objector to that thing where a person states the current year as if that’s self-evident support for an argument, but here we are, so: It’s 2015. How Murphy still believes that sensationalizing rape to score easy points with an audience is even remotely close to being acceptable eludes me. He’s off to an ignominious start, and I, for one, cannot wait to see how much more offensive, terrible, and offensively terrible this show can become under the keen tutelage of Ryan Murphy. Buckle in, everyone, because it’s going to be a bumpy, murdery ride.
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