In order to launch a successful pop-culture franchise in the age of information, it's necessary to build a robust fandom. Think One Direction and their die-hard Directioners, or BBC's Sherlock with its Sherlockians and Cumberbitches. There's even Future Hive, a fairly nascent online community (at least in terms of coining their name), dedicated to making it known that Future is the hottest rapper in the game. These communities rally around their objects of devotion, creating memes, sharing conspiracy theories, and generally devoting a substantial portion of their lives to maintaining a culture surrounding whatever they happen to be a fan of.
Still, the fandom around American Horror Story is impressive, both in terms of size—each season's premiere has drawn in a larger audience than the previous—and scope. The show is laid out in anthology form while maintaining a repertory cast: Though the theme and plot of each season is different, many of the actors remain the same, giving the sense that there are greater, not-so-obvious connections to be made. You can find an innumerable amount of conspiracy theories online, Tumblrs dedicated solely to the AHS news beat, and, of course, a perpetually active subreddit dissecting the show in almost real-time.
Tonight, the show returns to FX for its fifth season, this time dubbed American Horror Story: Hotel. In addition to its usual cast, (Art)pop-star-cum-jazz-aficionado Lady Gaga plays a leading role as the Countess, the hotel's matron. It goes without saying that Gaga is someone with her own dedicated fandom—her Little Monsters are one of the most obsessive in all the land. In addition to being a savvy casting choice—Gaga's creepy, sexy energy has American Horror Story written all over it, bringing Gaga to the show is a merging of two rabid fandoms, which all but ensures the season's success.
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The brainchild of super-producer Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, The Normal Heart, Scream Queens), American Horror Story has been a TV juggernaut since it first premiered back in October 2011. In both its first and second installments—Murder House and Asylum—AHS took advantage of the short-form approach to storytelling the anthology format provided.
Although these seasons still featured their share of interesting character arcs—a husband constantly struggled to resist adulterous urges to bed an elderly maid who only appeared young and attractive to men in Murder House; a psychiatrist routinely beheaded and skinned his patients for furniture in Asylum—it was clear for both that the plot was not specifically character-driven. Instead, the show centered on how these characters navigated the space that the show had thrust them into. By keeping the action centered within a specific place, the show created an inherent framework around which bizarre characters and stories could still make sense. And rather than let things go totally off the rails—or, even worse, get stale—by stretching plotlines over the course of several seasons, AHS mastered the art of focused insanity.
But when the third installment (Coven) aired in 2013, it was clear that the writers had no intention on boxing their characters in forever. There was no longer a sense of place specificity—rather, Coven shifted towards a character-driven plot. Now, by centering it around the characters themselves, American Horror Story, for the first time seemed to divorce itself from its scariness and spook factor. With an aging, fashion-obsessed witch, an egotistical Hollywood actress-turned-sorceress, and Kathy Bates as a racist, slave-owning immortal who exfoliated with human blood, the Louisiana-set Coven carefully treaded the line of Southern Gothic horror and laugh-out-loud humor. Despite its tonal left turn, to many fans, Coven was every bit as enjoyable as both Murder House and Asylum, if not more.
But by the fourth season, however, American Horror Story seemed to have lost its footing. This time focusing in on a plucky circus troupe in Florida, Freak Show took the campiness to an overwrought extreme. A "Lobster Boy" used his large hands to offer sexual favors to women, for example, and there was an extended arc concerning whether a woman had a vestigial penis or simply a very large clitoris. In an attempt to justify exactly what the hell the characters were doing, AHS lost the delicate balance it had struck in previous seasons. The show's plot suffered as a result. Despite setting ratings records, Freak Show was largely a disappointment to its fan base. Still, part of being a true fan is pressing on, continuing to tune in, and hoping for better days.
Season five of the show, however, promises to be a return to form. Operating within the confines of the (haunted) Hotel Cortez, it returns to the site-specificity that provided the first two seasons with a coherent framework. And with Lady Gaga—never one to shy away from high-concept art or spectacle-inducing performances—acting as the owner of the hotel, there should be no worries of it losing any of the camp that Murphy has worked so hard to get into the script since Coven.
Based on the pilot alone, what we were are left with is the best of both worlds—a symbiotic merging of all the finest aspects of the show's two distinct sides. The hotel is obviously central to the plot as a whole, but the wide array of characters—perhaps the weirdest yet, with freaky junkies, fashion designers, quasi-vampires, sex addicts, and demons—guarantees a high enough level of personality to successfully balance out the more morose elements.
It's equal parts terrifying (a male version of the twins from The Shining show up), ridiculously campy (think orgies that end in blood feasts, soundtracked by neo-goths She Wants Revenge), and outright obscene ("the most disturbing scene we've ever done" turns out to be a graphic sequence involving a sex-crazed demon and an unsuspecting Max Greenfield), proving that Ryan Murphy has created yet another universe that is just as captivating as it is revolting.
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But the star of the show is, of course, Lady Gaga, playing the bloodthirsty, sexually insatiable, coke-binging, couture-donning Countess. Though her acting chops might not exactly be Oscar Award-worthy, it barely matters—American Horror Story has never really been known for its nuance, anyway. Instead, Gaga's performance is as mercurial as the show itself: playful and flirty one moment, dangerous and demanding the next, and sexy and alluring throughout.
With the recent announcement that Ryan Murphy has already asked Lady Gaga to return for season six of the show, it's clear that there is more than enough excitement coming from both Little Monsters and AHS fans alike to guarantee that tonight's premiere will fare well in terms of viewership. And, if the episode is anything to go by, I have no reason to believe that Hotel won't go down in history as one of the series' best seasons.
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American Horror Story: Hotel premieres tonight at 10 PM on FX.