TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow night, the FX series "American Horror Story" returns with a new addition called "Hotel" and a new star, Lady Gaga. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: One of the newest trends on TV and one of the most intriguing is the season-long anthology drama series. In the golden age of TV, back in the 1950s, anthology series presented a brand-new story and cast every week - a lonely butcher named Marty looking for love, jurors arguing over a verdict in "12 Angry Men," manikins coming to life in "The Twilight Zone." Then the anthology format all but vanished, except for the rare, noteworthy revival over the past few decades - HBO's "Tales From The Srypt," Showtime's Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theatre," Nickelodeon's "Are You Afraid Of The Dark." But over the past few years, something strange has happened. A few television series have begun reinventing and rebooting themselves, presenting shorter seasons of 10 episodes or so, then returning the next year with all new stories and settings and partly or completely new casts. These new shows are anthology series, except they're starting from scratch each year instead of each week. HBO's "True Detective is one of these new-style anthology shows and demonstrates both the appeal and the risk. Season one was terrific, largely because its limited number of episodes allowed the show to land Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as leads, but season two, with different stars and a weaker story, suffered so much by comparison that Andy Samberg ridiculed it at this year's Emmys. FX's "Fargo," after a great first season, begins season two next week with what looks to be another strong year. And this week, the series that pioneered the new anthology trend - FX's "American Horror Story" returns for season five. It's titled "Hotel" and set in one, a lavishly-designed spooky old place with secrets, ghosts and other scares and thrills behind every door. Previous seasons have been set in a haunted house, an asylum school for witches and a freak show carnival. And all of them have starred Jessica Lange, who won best actress Emmy awards twice for two different roles. She's not back this season. But Kathy Bates, another Emmy winner for one of her several "American Horror Story" supporting roles, is with a new rule that may turn out to be her best yet on this series. She plays Iris, the hotel reception clerk. And Iris is so surly, sarcastic and unhelpful, she gives even Basil Fawlty from "Fawlty Towers" a run for his money as the nastiest innkeeper in TV history. Here she is welcoming some new guests to the Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles, a pair of young women from abroad who have just arrived, but don't like the look of the place.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")
KATHY BATES: (As Iris) I heard you the first time. Reservations?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) For us, your hotel is not right. You will please give us back our deposit?
BATES: (As Iris) No refunds.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) But we need the money for the new hotel.
BATES: (As Iris) Welcome to America.
BIANCULLI: Other actors from the "American Horror Story" repertory cast are back, also in new roles. And by this point, it's fun to see how differently they will appear and behave. Last season, Sarah Paulson played conjoined twins - both of them. This year, she plays Sally, a combination junkie, punk and siren. Evan Peters, who has appeared in every incarnation of this anthology series, is back again, too, as are repeat players Denis O'Hare and Angela Bassett. And there are some new additions, including Wes Bentley, Matt Bomer, Chloe Sevigny and most prominently of all, pop star Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has replaced Jessica Lange this season as the central focus of "American Horror Story." Her character, known simply as The Countess, is bloodthirsty in a literal sense as well as a figurative one. Her stylish ways with her victims, male and female, bring to mind Catherine Deneuve in "The Hunger." For much of this year's opener, Lady Gaga glides through without speaking, looking great but saying nothing, like the shimmering star of a silent horror film. She even watches one, by going to an outdoor movie in a cemetery, where hipster locals picnic near graves while watching "Nosferatu." But when The Countess finally does speak, showing a young boy around some of the more hidden parts of her hotel, she makes quite a chilling impact. She's got a slithery, seductive presence that screams evil, even though the actual screaming in this opening hour happens elsewhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) People aren't supposed to live in hotels.
LADY GAGA: (As The Countess) Well, maybe this place is special. I want to show you something you'll enjoy. We'll only be gone a moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BELL)
LADY GAGA: (As The Countess) I went to New York many years ago. I loved roaming the streets, devouring the pulse of the city. Electrifying. I miss it very much. Did your father give you a choice when it came time to leave?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My dad says I'm not supposed to talk to strangers.
LADY GAGA: (As The Countess) We're not strangers. We're going to be great friends. Here we are.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's so special about a hallway?
BIANCULLI: You'll have to tune in and see, but what's behind that false wall knocked me out. The creators of the "American Horror Story" franchise - Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck - sometimes seem to enjoy creating new worlds and shows rather than sticking with them. So sometimes a good start doesn't always result in a satisfying ultimate conclusion, as with their musical series "Glee." But the one-season length of "American Horror Story" seems to suit them just fine. And it's impossible to wander through this first hour of "Hotel" without wondering, with great expectation, just what else is behind some of those doors. For this audaciously designed anthology series, this is the most visually arresting and twisted one yet. And given the history of "American Horror Story," that's both a compliments and a warning.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with the director and the star of the film "Son Of Saul," set in the death camp Auschwitz in 1944. It's about the Sonderkommandos - the Jews who were forced by the Nazis to herd people into the gas chambers, remove the bodies, load them in the ovens and dump the ashes. "Son of Saul" won the grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. I hope you'll join us.