Martha Thomases: Insane, Edgy, Horrific, Great!


What do you do when something you love goes off the deep end?

If that something is person, you support him to the best of your ability and try to get him the help he needs. A person who goes off the deep end is suffering, and you, as a human, should do your best to make that person better.

What about when that something is fiction? Is it okay to enjoy watching?

I ask this because this season of American Horror Story: Hotel is completely nutso. Whatever narrative drive there might be is completely sabotaged by the sex and blood and beauty.

It’s really fun.

AHS is one of a new kind of television show, like Fargo and True Detective, which tell a complete story each season but then start over from scratch, with a new cast, new characters, and a new premise. Unlike those other two shows, AHS keeps many (but not all) of the same actors, like a repertory company or a neighborhood theater group. Some actors, like Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson have been on every season. Others, like Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett showed up a few seasons in and have stayed around.

Jessica Lange was on the first four seasons, but didn’t come back this year. Would she have kept the story on the rails? Would we want her to?

Each season, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk take a horror story trope and play with its conventions. In the the first season, American Horror Story: Murder House, for example, a normal family bought a haunted house. I thought it was good, but it didn’t knock me out. I liked the way the story meandered, with guest stars appearing long enough to get killed, but I wasn’t entirely hooked.

It wasn’t until the second season, American Horror Story: Asylum that the craziness revealed itself in all its glory. Set in a Catholic insane asylum in 1964, the show had nuns with secret pasts, demonic possession, Nazi scientists, alien visitors, serial killers and more. I realized that the producers were going for more than a simple scare in the episode titled The Name Game, in which Jessica Lange burst into song in the middle of the day room.

She sang again, on other seasons, but it was never quite so bonkers. Neither was the premise.

For the third season, American Horror Story: Coven, the setting was a school for witches in New Orleans. It was humid and full of voodoo (and great characters), but not up to the second. And last season’s American Horror Story: Freak Show had a two-headed woman and Jessica Lange singing David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” but still nothing as wonky as the Nazi doctor being stalked by Anne Frank, which we had in Season Two.

This season, the premise is that the Hotel Cortez, a Los Angeles Art Deco jewel well past its prime, is run by a vampire, played by Lady Gaga. As if it were run by Black Flag pesticides, guests check in but they don’t check out. A detective with a tragic past is investigating a series of murders. Denis O’Hare plays the greatest bartender in the world.

I could go on, but there really isn’t any point. Each episode contains enough blood to fill a swimming pool, and plenty of sex, among every kind of combination of consenting adults you might imagine. Often, all of these things are in the same frame.

The clothes are beautiful. The men are beautiful (special shout out to Wes Bentley, Matt Bomer, Finn Wittrock and Cheyenne Jackson). The sets are beautiful.

All this beauty doesn’t make characters, however. I couldn’t tell you who the protagonist is. I can’t tell you what the menace is.

And yet, I would watch it every day if that was a choice.

Murphy and Falchuk are capable of making emotionally moving television. In addition to Glee and Nip/Tuck, they were behind HBO’s production of The Normal Heart, which had me crying buckets (and also featured Bomer, Wittrock and O’Hare).

Have there been comics that are as much fun to watch and make so little sense? I can’t think of any. Maybe S. Clay Wilson’s Checkered Demon, except that didn’t have as many cute guys in it.

There’s going to be a sixth season. I don’t know anything about it, but I’m setting my DVR.