Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ranting On...American Horror Story: Hotel

If you've read this blog for many years or have come here recently and perused the archives (you should-we post almost daily and there's over 1300 articles at your fingertips), you'll know that I have a complicated TV relationship with Ryan Murphy, the Emmy-winning creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee, The Normal Heart, and most recently American Horror Story.  I have watched many of his shows-hell, I was there from beginning to end of the abysmal The New Normal, though I don't know if I would consider myself a fan of his.  The reason for this is that Ryan Murphy is, more than any other showrunner (and all showrunners get this issue from time-to-time) a sucker for his own hype and a man who frequently finds himself ruining his creations.  Let's be clear here-I'm not one of those people who said Glee stopped being good after the first episode...though I am going to say that even with my Darren Criss-love that I just couldn't with the show eventually, particularly after they didn't know how to recover after the death of Cory Monteith and the introduction of the "new class."  Murphy is someone who ruins his creations, going on tangents that just don't make any sense for his shows, and frequently pushing his characters to such intense extremes that they are almost unrecognizable in the end.

As a result of this I have long thought that the anthology-style programs that he was creating on American Horror Story were a perfect fit for him.  After all, here was a place where he could reinvent himself each season, giving us another dose of his brand of crazy while never actually being able to go into a stupor of boredom and overwriting like he did on other shows.  And for the first two seasons of the program, we were left with something that made that seem correct.  Murder House was marvelously  fun-a sexy, fascinating look at a family haunted by a house, it's the sort of show that instantly both titillated and occasionally brought out some really strong acting (both in Murphy's wheelhouse), and Asylum may have been the high-point artistically, with a maddening array of great actors (Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and James Cromwell all bringing their A-game) joining a truly well-formed plot that only allowed for occasional alien-induced distractions.  Then Coven came, and Murphy's focus shifted away from creating yet another vital story and instead onto the outlandish things he was going to make his cast do onscreen.  You had great actors like Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, and Gabourey Sidibe showing up, which had to be quite rewarding, but past them he suffered that fate that happens when comic book movies start getting made-when you have too many characters, the script gets muddled, and Coven became an exhausting mess.

His fourth season, though, is when things started to get completely off-the-rails.  Freak Show had arguably the worst turn by star Jessica Lange of the series, and even a bravura piece-of-work by Sarah Paulson couldn't save the series from utter eye-rolling (every character seemed to be obsessed with being horrible human beings and despicably violent and changed their moods seemingly every scene cut).  The season was saved, of course, by Finn Wittrock's picture-perfect turn as Dandy Mott, a villain unlike any that we had seen in past seasons of the show, and arguably the best creation for the series since at least Sister Jude, if not Constance Langdon herself. Still, though, Mott was the only real icing on a bloated season.

Which is why I look at Hotel and am cringing, because there's nothing about the cast that seems to be calling out "wow" in a major way to me.  Every other season of the show, of course, it was noted for having Jessica Lange, a movie star extraordinaire in the center of the occasional bedlam to ground the script.  A double Oscar-winner with an incredible ability to ooze confidence and create memorable moments, Lange was, to put it bluntly, too good to be bogged down when Murphy took her into a questionable direction.  Without her, though, we're left with some very good actors (Kathy Bates, Finn Wittrock, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson), who quite frankly don't have that ability to the same degree.  Kathy Bates is the best actor of this bunch (and like Lange also comes armed with an Oscar), but she's frequently relegated to the sidelines of this series and aside from her "featured" episodes, occasionally feels more like prestigious wallpaper than the great actress she is.  Sarah Paulson should be the central actor now (she's more than earned it), but she's been hit-or-miss in the series, with every Asylum resulting in a Coven, and doesn't have the movie star gravitas that Bates does to ground some of the more outlandish things in the script.  Angela Bassett's roles on the show have, like Bates, been severely underwritten and Wittrock is still new-we need to see if he can make it past Dandy Mott (Evan Peters, usually solid, has never been remotely as good as he was as Tate Langdon).  Plus, let's be honest here-Murphy is making this entirely about Lady Gaga from the promotions and the press.

I know I can be a little rough on Lady Gaga, but it's only because she's kind of emerged so far as a bit of a one-note pony.  She tried to be Madonna for most of her first two albums, and it was refreshing in a sea of R&B, and I'm not going to say that I wasn't into it for a while, but then she tried too hard to create this legion-of-fans-who-worship-me thing, and she felt increasingly inauthentic.  Her pop output ended up being avant garde without any substance when she released Applause, and let's be honest here-she wouldn't be doing a TV show on cable or doing Sound of Music medleys on the Oscars or duets albums with Tony Bennett if her career was where she wished it was.  This is a second act, and while those occasionally work for pop stars, most actors end up being more like Britney Spears than Cher when they go from singer to thespian.  Gaga's act has always been to try and offend people in the least offensive way possible, and she has seemed wooden in music videos where she's playing a part.  She could surprise (again, Cher), but I'm doubtful and wish that Murphy was trusting a stronger actor like Paulson or Bates with the center of the show.  Couple Gaga with the fact that he's hiring actors who seem pretty limited in their abilities (Cheyenne Jackson, Matt Bomer, Max Greenfield, Naomi Campbell, Wes Bentley-sorry, but it's true that none of them have really popped in a way other than a signature character), and I smell a bit of a disaster.  I could be wrong, and there's a very decent chance I get sucked in (I've quit AHS before only to end up back in the throes), but I am filled with a lot of dread based on everything I have read.

Those are my thoughts, anyway-what are yours?  What do you think of the looks of American Horror Story's next season?  Are you excited about Lady Gaga, or are you wishing that Jessica Lange was still around?  Share your thoughts below in the comments!

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