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'American Horror Story' Returns, With Twists, Thrills And A Chilling Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga plays a mysterious character called the Countess on the new season of FX's <em>American Horror Story</em>, which begins on Wed.
Suzanne Tenner
Lady Gaga plays a mysterious character called the Countess on the new season of FX's American Horror Story, which begins on Wed.

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. Mannequins coming to life in The Twilight Zone.

Then the anthology format all but vanished, except for the rare and noteworthy revival over the past few decades: HBO's Tales from the Crypt, 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'sTrue Detectiveis 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, a 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 role 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.

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 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. She looks great, but says 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.

The creators of the American Horror Story franchise, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, 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 compliment, and a warning.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.