THE SERIES "American Horror Story: Hotel"
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday night at 10 on FX.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Los Angeles' Hotel Cortez is a dowdy old beauty where terrible things happen -- vampiric things, and much worse. You don't want to look under the beds, or sleep on them either. (It does not get a lot of recommendations on Yelp). Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) runs the front desk, with an assist from cross-dresser Liz Taylor (Denis O'Hare). Ethel's son Donovan (Matt Bomer) is a hotel habitue, as is Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson). The Cortez's boss is the Countess Elizabeth (Lady Gaga). She is a sartorial piece of work, accessorized with a metallic hand that does bad stuff.
A detective, John Lowe (Wes Bentley), is mysteriously summoned to the Cortez. Why? Could it have something to do with a series of horrific murders in L.A.?
The all-star cast also includes Angela Bassett (who doesn't appear in the opener), Evan Peters, Cheyenne Jackson, Chloë Sevigny, Finn Wittrock, and Mare Winningham. Jessica Lange is sitting out this edition.
MY SAY Let's talk about one Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta -- you know her as Gaga -- because that's all anyone coming to the fifth season of "AHS" will want to talk about anyway. As the Countess Elizabeth, she's a voluptuary and old soul -- possibly an ancient soul -- with vermilion lips that look like a smear of blood. Or maybe that's just because they are smeared with blood. When she first drifts onto screen, the impulse is to gawk, then shield your eyes. She's a bright white light that punctures the gloom, much as that exotic hand accessory of hers punctures throats. Gaga fits perfectly into Ryan Murphy's tableau of horror-meets-sex-meets-death. Her eroticism may be lethal but also Gagaesque, abetted by a pair of nipple shields that look expensive and painful. How fitting Gaga waited until "AHS" to make her TV series debut.
Now about that series: It will forcibly repel some viewers, disturb the rest. That is the plan, after all. "AHS" never bought into the idea that less is more, but that more is more. Much more is even better. The season opener is downright operatic with the gore, and more indebted to the hotel horror of Eli Roth ("Hostel") than to the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink." If hardly a quantum advance over the fourth season, it makes the first look like a sitcom.
That's your warning (or promise, depending on your tastes). But there's something else going on here that deepens the gloom and depravity -- the drug subtext. Not all guests get high at the Cortez but those who do are usually doomed, and ill-equipped to see -- much less understand -- the fate that is about to befall them. That's a novel twist to "AHS," also a depressing one, and probably cautionary, too.
Like the previous four "AHS" editions, the fifth is a visual feast (which is probably the wrong word here, but you get the idea). Everything -- everyone, and not just Gaga -- is eroticized, too. Even the shadows are seductive.
A shame that it all feels so grim and joyless.