American Horror Story: Hotel is a nightmare and I don't want to wake up

More than any other show in recent memory, American Horror Story is built on its ability to one-up itself on a weekly basis. The first season, centered around a Los Angeles family in a haunted home, made its name by constantly crossing boundaries and outrageously upping the stakes, leaving the audience to wonder just how the story could sustain itself into a second season (as it turns out, it never had any intention of doing so; creator Ryan Murphy revealed at the time the AHS would be an anthology show that rebooted itself annually).

Subsequent seasons followed a similar methodology, and basically lived or died by their ability to escalate both the drama and lunacy. Some were certainly better than others; I found the gonzo madness of Asylum to be incredibly entertaining, while Coven and Freak Show each seemed to lose steam midway through. Part of it’s been simple fatigue and desensitization; we’ve been here before and we’ve seen that, so for AHS to shock, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk don’t just need to go further — they’ve got to sustain it over a 13-episode run.

It’s left me asking myself how to best evaluate the debut episode of the new season, Hotel, premiering tonight on FX. Should I focus on the visuals, or setting? Lady Gaga’s much-hyped TV acting debut? And then it hit me — the key is to judge American Horror Story on where it lives and breathes, in the realm of sheer, bizarre what-the-fuck-edness.

Judging from that, it’s going to be a good season.

American Horror Story: Hotel takes place in the Hotel Cortez, a downtown LA deco throwback that’s seen better days — not that you’d know it from the place’s opulent decadence. Murphy, who directed the first episode, clearly watched The Shining many, many times during the off-season, because Hotel is full of shout-outs to Kubrick’s classic, with everything from the carpet to the sight of a creepy child standing at the end of a long hallway bringing the film to mind. But it’s all layered over with American Horror Story’s own creepy hallmark aesthetics: faceless, plastic-wrapped figures, shiny metal dildos, and blood-drenched sheets all clash against the Cortez’s formal veneer, creating a phantasmagoric horror show that’s nearly impossible to look away from.

A phantasmagoric horror show that’s nearly impossible to look away from

Given the anthology format, however, we’re basically dealing with a new series every year, and most of the first episode is dedicated to introducing the audience to this new cast of characters. There’s Kathy Bates as Iris, the quirky, stiff desk clerk of the hotel; fellow AHS stalwart Sarah Paulson as a bloodthirsty junkie that goes by the name of Hypodermic Sally. 30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson makes a brief appearance as Will Drake, a New York-based fashion designer with a financial interest in the hotel, while Denis O’Hare (True Blood) struts as a chain-smoking hotel guest known only as Liz Taylor.

American Horror Story: Hotel promotional images (FX)

They’re all engaging in the quick, bite-sized moments we spend with them — the show always gives actors interesting things to do — but the episode really belongs to a trio of characters. On one hand there’s Wes Bentley (Freak Show, American Beauty) as John Lowe, an LA homicide detective pulled straight out of Seven, who finds himself checking into the Cortez as he tries to grapple with a family tragedy. On the other, there’s the duo of Donovan (Matt Bomer) and Countess Elizabeth (Lady Gaga).

To go into their situation too much would be to spoil some delightful surprises, but Gaga is a fantastic match for the show, projecting an electric combination of danger and lust that sets the season’s heart pumping triple-time. She's fearless, and the same goes for Bomer; after last year’s season of creepy clowns, the pair set the tone for Hotel with their characters’ blatant sexual chemistry, filling the screen with the energy of an after-hours fetish club.

American Horror Story: Hotel promotional image (FX)

It doesn’t hurt that the episode’s soundtrack is a goth fan’s dream, with Sisters of Mercy and She Wants Revenge songs both playing prominent roles — but then again, Murphy is always just as interested in upending familiar tropes as he is in utilizing them. The episode actually closes with a surprisingly earnest emotional beat set to The Eagles (and yes, it’s that Eagles song). The overall result feels like a whacked-out speedball of sex, death, heartbreak, and longing that isn’t just scary and entertaining — I found it to be the single best introductory episode of AHS since the original pilot from Murder House. (Speaking of that first season, Christine Estabrook’s realtor character returns in Hotel, the first of what Murphy has said will be numerous appearances from old characters as previous seasons collide under the roof of the Cortez.)

A whacked-out speedball of sex, death, heartbreak, and longing

The trick with American Horror Story is that it can all go wildly off the rails at any time, and when the show is at its very best, it often feels like it is. It’s not just about running to the brink of madness; it’s about running up and stopping just before you topple, and getting a good long look into the abyss while you sway. But I still can’t get some of the images from the first episode of Hotel out of my brain, and that’s just what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk want. We’ll see where the rest of the season is headed (I have some ideas), and if they’ll truly be able to top themselves week after week — but it’s going to be a lot of fun watching them try.

American Horror Story: Hotel debuts tonight on FX.