‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ Finds (Too Much) Restraint in ‘Chutes and Ladders’
There is not nearly enough story in this season of American Horror Story, which feels like an incredibly insane assessment given the usual proliferation of characters, with the titular Hotel providing them all enough space to co-exist under one (mostly) contained roof. But it’s telling when actors like Finn Wittrock, Wes Bentley and Chloe Sevigny are the most restrained, left with very little scenery to chew on when there’s more than enough to go around.
The name of the series alone provides ample comedic material for the Twitter crowd. American Horror Story: Neon Dark Shadows. American Horror Story: Anti-Vaxxers. American Horror Story: Willy Wonka’s Village of the Damned. Each episode of each season doesn’t feel as though it’s based on an actual script, but on a checklist of bonkers horror concepts concocted by Ryan Murphy & Co., and yet each season feels increasingly limp. Is this a genuine narrative flaw, the story lost in a labyrinth of occasionally shocking moments? Or have we simply become woefully familiar with Murphy’s “everything including the kitchen sink and also don’t forget to add that pile of trash over there and set it on fire while you shove your hand down the garbage disposal” approach?
As usual, there are so many characters this season that it takes more than a few IMDb checks to make sure we’ve got them all down. There’s Lady Gaga’s glam vampire (no, I won’t say it) Countess, her New Wave lover, Wes Bentley’s Detective Keanu Reeves Impersonating Will Graham, the clerk, the drag queen Jane of all trades, Sarah Paulson’s Nancy Spungen riff, and so on and so on.
With so many characters and with such an, ahem, forceful introduction with last week’s death-by-murder-dildo, “Chutes and Ladders” feels like it’s tumbling down a series of missed opportunities. The second episode feels most alive when we spend time with Evan Peters’ H.H. Holmes-inspired hotel architect / serial murderer, Mr. James March. Murphy has proven in seasons past that stylized period flashbacks are a strength (Jessica Lange’s A Serbian Film-inspired origin story last season was particularly effective), and they are again in Hotel, as Kathy Bates’ Iris takes Detective Downer on a trip down nightmarish memory lane to explain the hotel’s peculiar and brutal history. Peters tears into the role of March with dark, campy verve, bringing an energy that this episode is sorely lacking.
And that lack is all the more felt when you realize the episode’s true horror: a runtime of one hour and 42 minutes (approximately 85 to 90 without commercials). I haven’t known such horror since that time I was watching Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables and after about 90 minutes my Blu-ray player rudely declared “Insert Disc Two.”
There’s a tonal disconnect throughout “Chutes and Ladders” — where Gaga’s cool, seductive restraint serves the Countess well, that same moderation acts as a detriment to Bentley, Sevigny, Wittrock, et al. Perhaps her vampirism isn’t the only thing that’s catching. Wittrock’s junkie male model continues to hammer home the addiction theme running through the (so far) tepid veins of this season, and the narrative deficiency this week is reflected in Wittrock’s listless meandering through the halls of the hotel, searching for his next fix. In this way, he is the viewer proxy — we are wandering through an absurd collection of narratives, desperately seeking the next thrill. Ryan Murphy is our drug dealer.
“Chutes and Ladders” doesn’t truly get interesting until the last 30 minutes, at which point you already feel exhausted from the aimless narrative — Detective Downer discovers that his dead kid is in the hotel, the Countess dumps her lover for a newly-immortalized male model, and this is pretty much all that happens over the course of 90 minutes. For a series that has proven its addiction to indulgence, this one finds little use for or justification in an extended runtime.
There are arguments to be had (and we will soon have them) about whether Ryan Murphy is self-aware and satirical or earnest in his television endeavors. He’s both, but the latter undercuts the former and vice versa, as he hasn’t yet found a way to successfully marry these ambitions. I had hoped that Scream Queens would encourage Murphy to direct some — not all — of his campier and broader tendencies toward that series, but perhaps the division has drained American Horror Story of any real story or character or life.
Fitting, since the most alive this show feels right now is when it’s dealing in violent death.