American Horror Story: is there life after Jessica Lange?

Now that Jessica Lange has departed American Horror Story, how will the show's next season, Hotel, cope without its leading lady?

Every autumn, when American Horror Story returns to our screens to spook us anew, things have always changed. Being an anthology series, every season of FX’s fright-fest takes place in a fresh locale with a new band of oddballs (all drawn from the same spine of actors, naturally). First it was a haunted house then a mental institution, a witch’s coven and, most recently, a funfair sideshow.

Despite regular overhauls, American Horror Story has retained five key actors who have, in their own ways, been absorbed into the show’s DNA (the rest of them flit in and out): Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters and, of course, Jessica Lange. However, as announced back when the show was renewed for its fourth run, Lange has now bowed out of American Horror Story, making Freak Show her last season.

American Horror Story’s unashamed weirdness is an acquired taste. Arguably, you might call showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (who also masterminded American Horror Story’s diametrical opposite, the squeaky-clean, all-singing, all-dancing Glee) fickle and needlessly complex storytellers fond of packing convoluted narratives into each season (particularly the first). There has always been, however, one thing that can be instantly singled out as the show’s saving grace: the talent of Jessica Lange.

Lange starred in the first season, Murder House, as Constance Langdon, the catty, intrusive neighbour of the Harmon family, the new owners of the eponymous creepy abode. In that role she brimmed with elegance and charm. Her acting prowess is such that you could say Murphy and Falchuk side-lined her in the first season in order to give her fellow actors space to breathe. Casting Lange in season one was a coup, and Murphy and Falchuk struck gold when she agreed to return thrice more. She went on to play lead characters in the second, third and fourth season, appearing in all episodes subsequent to season one.

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Now that Jessica Lange has bade adieu to the show that found her fresh fame in the 2010s, how will American Horror Story sashay on for a fifth season?

Chiefly, the show is an ensemble piece, shouldering its various back-stories (the show zips back and forth between time periods in order to flesh out the characters, their origins and motivations) between all members of the cast and apportioning the dramatic moments. Murder House is probably best served in this area as Lange wasn’t quite so squarely in the spotlight, and Asylum, too, for its multitude of patients at Briarcliff. But in the latter seasons, as Jessica Lange became so prominent (she was the Supreme of the coven; it was her freak show, after all) the ensemble aspect to the show – once highly appealing – somewhat diminished.

Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Finn Wittrock, Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts were all on hand in Coven and Freak Show with their own stories but Jessica Lange’s star power and flair was an overwhelming draw (see her marvellous rendition of Life On Mars complete with powder-blue Bowie suit at the climax of Freak Show’s premiere; likewise with Lana Del Rey’s Gods And Monsters).

Now that Lange has exited the show, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are under increased pressure to produce a fifth run that is as wacky and off-centre as the seasons that preceded it without her considerable assistance.

Enter, perhaps surprisingly, Lady Gaga. The pop songstress’ casting in the fifth season, subtitled Hotel (expect plenty of nods to The Shining), was perhaps an even bigger scoop than that of Jessica Lange back in 2011. The Mother Monster is a sought-after personality, fresh from a world tour and an unexpectedly stripped-down The Sound Of Music tribute at the Oscars, so it’ll be interesting to see how large a part she plays. What’s more, the fanfare around the announcement of her casting is telling of what she will do in Hotel because while she is a global superstar, a simple cameo would likely not have resulted in such a flashy announcement.

If Lady Gaga is to become one of the new leads (American Horror Story is an ensemble but only a handful of stars appear in every episode of each season) then she is in part treading in Jessica Lange’s footsteps. Gaga has been ruled out as the hotelier – certainly a massive cog in Hotel’s machine – thanks to a Tweet by Ryan Murphy, which read, “Kathy Bates is running the Hotel.” Bates (who has starred in Coven and Freak Show) is a solid choice as she’s as strong an actress as Lange and more than capable of handling such a meaty role.

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Whatever Lady Gaga does in American Horror Story, there’s no denying that she’s perfect for the show. As a bizarro avant-garde creation who is larger than life, entirely erratic and the owner of a kaleidoscopic wardrobe: she’s tonally ideal. Yet, as ecstatic as Murphy and Falchuk must be (and audiences, too) having landed Gaga, fans are yet to know whether she’s a strong enough actor to do much of the heavy lifting on American Horror Story. From the off, Lange knew exactly when to turn up the campy theatrics and when to play a scene beautifully, solemnly straight. Will Lady Gaga be able to strike the balance that made Jessica Lange’s characters so endearing?

American Horror Story is wildly unpredictable and therefore hit-and-miss at times, but its one constant has always been Jessica Lange – whether in the form of Constance Langdon, in the wimple of Sister Jude Martin, as glamour-cat Fiona Goode or in salty Elsa Mars’ tailored suit. Lange has consistently outperformed her none-too-shabby co-stars (Evan Peters and Frances Conroy are also both superlative each year) and she leaves a noticeable hole, one that Lady Gaga and Kathy Bates now have to plug.

Who else will be joining them in the task? The full cast for Hotel has yet to be confirmed but we do know that Freak Show’s Matt Bomer will return in a regular capacity as will his co-star from that season, Wes Bentley. The two of them will be joined by Asylum’s Chloe Sevigny. At the time of writing, nobody from American Horror Story’s core cast has been announced as returning, but the likelihood is that Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Evan Peters and Frances Conroy will all make their regular appearance. If not, then Falchuk and Murphy will have a fresh problem on their hands, bereft of the fabulous Jessica Lange and her truly wonderful co-stars.

American Horror Story is a show about change, about clearing the decks and revamping every year but without its lynchpin in Jessica Lange it could potentially struggle in 2015. In order to continue successfully American Horror Story: Hotel needs to fire on all cylinders by stripping back some of the navel-gazing it’s known for, by fully making use of its hugely talented ensemble cast, and by drawing out strong central performances from Gaga (a risk) and Bates (a stellar certainty). Jessica Lange may be gone but the show, as the saying goes, must continue in a timely fashion.