TV Review: FX’s ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ offers a familiar brew

10.09.13 6 years ago 22 Comments
A couple years ago, either in a fit of nutritional pique or as an impulse buy at Target, I purchased a Magic Bullet, or perhaps its generic hand-blending equivalent. 
For a solid month, I was obsessed with smoothies, with the idea that by tossing a banana, some ice cubes and a little bit of juice in the blender, I could create a sweet, semi-healthy paste that could also be a delivery mechanism for other fruits and vegetables. A handful of carrots vanished into the paste, barely changing the flavor but making the goo orange and higher in Vitamin A or something. A couple leaves of spinach delivered iron and a lurid green tone. An apple or a pear? The consistency might change and maybe the wellness benefits, but the flavor stayed the same. I marveled at all of the different things I could do with my Magic Bullet, the number of things I could blend up, and have the end result be interchangeable. 
Like most impulse buys, the pleasure of the Magic Bullet wore off. I wasn’t enjoying my smoothies all that much and dispensing with chewing eventually ceased to be a sufficient advantage over just taking a carrot or an apple out of the fridge and devouring that. The interchangeable smoothies maintained amusement, but more as culinary experiments that nourishing meals. I haven’t used that Magic Bullet for a long time.
That, fans of clunky, extended and imperfect analogies, brings me to the third season of “American Horror Story,” premiering on FX on Wednesday (October 9) night. Sorry. The third “miniseries” of “American Horror Story.”
In the past, I’ve made the argument that FX was taking advantage of Emmy loopholes in calling “American Horror Story” a miniseries because in addition to maintaining the same basic creative team and the same core cast, I suspect that everybody involved with the show is working with a standard series contract. But that’s just semantic quibbling.
People protest, “But ‘American Horror Story’ has a totally different narrative and characters each season” and that also makes me chortle. 
Watching the premiere of “American Horror Story: Coven,” I was stuck by two key things: First, I strongly dislike “American Horror Story” as a week-by-week narrative, but I find it utterly fascinating as a cumulative work now in its third season. And second, it hardly matters what stories or genres Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk want to work through in any given season, because once everything has gone through their narrative Magic Bullet, it all looks and feels exactly the same, so of course the show isn’t three [and counting] separate miniseries projects under the same banner, it’s just a slightly varying recipe for American Horror Smoothies.
With “American Horror Story,” after three seasons the audience has become self-selected. If you dig the freakiness that Murphy and Falchuk are laying down, “Coven” will probably hit you with similar success, while if you find “American Horror Story” unpleasant to watch or merely masturbatory, you shouldn’t be fooled into thinking you’re going to like “Coven” just because the cast has now reached an almost absurd level of awesomeness. And if you’re like me and you manage to find exactly enough that’s engrossing to compensate for the monotony of what’s just gross, that will probably continue as well. 
To paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, “American Horror Story” is what you thought it was and what hasn’t changed is a good deal less important than what has changed.
More after the break…
After covering haunted houses with a certain clarity in “American Horror Story: Dylan McDermott’s Masturbation House,” “American Horror Story: Asylum” was a Jackson Pollock splatter painting of madness touching on demonic possession, aliens and over-explained human evil. In that light, there’s a refreshing clarity to what’s afoot in “American Horror Story: Coven.” As Frank Sinatra would sing, it’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft and for Murphy and Falchuk, nothing is strictly taboo. 
We begin in New Orleans in the 19th century, where Kathy Bates’ Delphine LaLaurie is, ostensibly, a society matron, but she got some horrifying experiments going on up in her attic and because this is “American Horror Story,” you already know whatever’s stored in the attic isn’t an underused Ab-Roller or some boxes of John Grisham thrillers that aren’t worthy of bookshelf display. Madame LaLaurie is obsessed with youth and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to avoid aging, which seems to be a general theme to this season.
Jump to the present and seemingly ordinary teen Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is about to discover, under the most unpleasant of circumstances, that she’s not so ordinary at all and because this is “American Horror Story,” you already know her extraordinary abilities probably don’t include Sudoku or knitting. Zoe, it turns out, comes from a line of witches. Faster than you can say “Hogwarts,” Zoe finds herself sent to The Big Easy, where she’s checked into an under-enrolled and under-staffed school for witches. The academy is fronted by Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx, an assimilationist witch who wants to teach her charges — including Emma Roberts and Gabourey Sidibe — how to fly under the radar and not draw attention to themselves. This ideology runs counter to the wishes of Jessica Lange’s Fiona, a much more powerful witch. Also obsessed with youth, Fiona is tired of witches living in the shadows and wants to teach the little witchlets to be strong and proud.
Around the fringes, you’ll find characters played by “American Horror Story” repertory players including Lily Rabe, Denis O’Hare, Frances Conroy and Evan Peters. And if you wait long enough, Angela Bassett shows up just long enough to tantalize viewers about what may eventually happen if she ever shares the screen with Oscar/Emmy winners Bates and Lange.
If nothing else, the potential of a single Bates-Lange-Bassett scene will keep me watching “Coven.” I find, in fact, that it has been the acting that has kept me watching the two previous seasons as well. Farmiga, O’Hare, Peters and the Conroy/Alexandra Breckenridge duo were having a ball in the first season and I kept tuning in for the random guest stars, well beyond when I lost interest in the haunted house and the wanking therein. Similarly Lange, Paulson, Rabe, Zachary Quinto and James Cromwell were just a few of the actors having a criminally good time in “Asylum” and whenever I considered checking out, somebody like Ian McShane would pop up and I’d have to stick around to see what insanity the writers were offering, even if it never rose above warmed over Dennis Potter. [Seriously, I wonder what would happen to the people FREAKING OUT about the “Name Game” scene from “Asylum” if they ever were exposed to “The Singing Detective,” which is pretty much the awesome version of everything “Asylum” attempted.]
Even when I question the pleasures being offered to viewers, I’ve never doubted why actors would think that “American Horror Story” was a worthy project to be a part of. Being a part of this ensemble is a guarantee that you avoid the monotony that comes from most network TV roles. Every year is only 13 episodes. Every season is a new story. And there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get to play one primary character, plus at least one version of that character either under the influence of a malevolent spiritual force or in a flashback. After the first season was set in Los Angeles, the two subsequent seasons have been regional, allowing the cast to go to hammy Boston accents in “Asylum” and cornpone N’awlins accents in “Coven.” If you want to give subtle, slowly etched performances? Look elsewhere. A second season of “Rectify” is surely hiring. But if you’re an actor looking to sound your barbaric yawp all over the place, to shower spittle upon your fellow actor and have them shower spittle upon you, to devour scenery til you burst, visit the vomitorium and devour still more scenery, “American Horror Story” is the place for you.
And lining up the characters offered to the ensemble-members on a season-by-season basis is the thing I enjoy more than anything. Jessica Lange has favored nation status in Ryan Murphy’s world and who can blame him? And who can’t get some amusement from imagining a multiverse in which Jessica Lange’s meddling neighbor Constance, her guilt-wracked Sister Jude and her powerful Fiona are part of the same continuum. What binds the characters together? What separates them? What are the writers giving Lange to do to keep her happy? This lateral thinking interests me more than what Fiona’s doing in New Orleans in “Coven.” I liked seeing Paulson and Rabe go from bit-players in “Dylan McDermott’s Masturbation House” to featured stars in “Asylum” and to see what the writers are isolating as their strengths. It’s cool seeing Farmiga and O’Hare return to the family, to try to identify which actors from previous seasons have been too busy to return and which actors the writers just hate. And, because acting is clearly a competition, I like comparing performances across seasons. And when you fill a cast this strong, it’s practically a competition in-season as well, to see who gets the biggest part, both in terms of lines, but also in terms of histrionics. 
I felt like Lange was much better in “Asylum” than in “Dylan McDermott’s Masturbation House” because while Season 1 just let her be campy and glorious, Season 2 gave her a character with a reservoir of human pain. So far, she’s back to having campy fun for Season 2, even if her thirst for youth is relatable. 
Bates is reveling in the grotesquerie of her character, which is ample and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is reveling in Bates’ well-established lack of vanity. The sense that Bates can and probably has played characters this monstrous in her sleep is a tiny bit abated by the fact that I don’t think she’s ever played one with a thick Southern accent. 
Of the three Big Divas, Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau arrives latest, has the least screentime and yet is most instantly captivating. There’s a serpentine slinkiness to Bassett’s accent and mannerisms that play well off of her muscular physicality. I hope that Bassett’s tardy entrance don’t mean that she won’t get ample time in the spotlight as “Coven” progresses.
It looks like we’ll be getting plenty of Taissa Farmiga this season, which is fine since she was one of the more sympathetic parts of the first season, while “AHS” new additions Roberts and Sidibe are enjoying playing around in this tawdry world.
It’s the familiarity of the tawdry world which, to me, makes it so unbearably dull. After “Dylan McDermott’s Masturbation House” and “Asylum,” you have a pretty good idea of what shocks or freaks Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk out and so when a living prisoner with a flayed face oozing with maggots is just the tip of the iceberg in the pre-credits scene, what can you do but shrug? And when Ryan Murphy delivers another one of his now-trademark magical characters with Down Syndrome who are underestimated, but deliver great wisdom, what can you do but shrug? 
The raunchy intersection of youthful sexuality and horrible violence, which was very much a part of the first season, took a leave of absence in “Asylum,” but returns in full-force here. It’s fetishistic, it’s icky and it’s one of those frustrating things that “AHS” does where it tries to bring real-world issues into a world that can’t stomach realism. Just as I felt like Murphy & Company’s treatment of the Holocaust as a plotpoint last season was creepy and unseemly, there’s a rape scene in the “Coven” premiere where there’s a fairly ghoulish pleasure being taken in selecting filters and camera angles. Probably this is not something to shrug about. Probably it’s something to be disturbed about, but… Look! The director of photography found his fisheye lens! 
Oy, the camera angles. We’re 30 seconds into the pilot before the first Dutch angle, followed by a sideways crane shot, followed by an absurdly meaningless iris-in. One of these days, “American Horror Story” is going to use a star-wipe unironically and then the show can just cancel itself. There’s a cinematic grammar that “AHS” has appropriated from grindhouse trash, pretentious Euro-cinema and edgy ’70s auteurs and then that grammar has been disassociated from all meaning. Pastiche-without-connectivity-or-substance has somehow become the prevailing style on “American Horror Story,” just as the incoherent and rule-breaking editing have established rhythms of their own. 
“American Horror Story” is a glorious mess and I get that the people involved take that as a point of pride. What I wish — a wish of utter futility after 2+ seasons — is that anybody cared a whit for tonal variation. I’m not talking about variation of crazy, which “American Horror Story” does quite nicely. I’m talking about a single slow or quiet moment to make the loud moments stand out in any way. When something tries to shock me consistently for 43 minutes, I’m pretty much never shocked by anything, or scared by anything. I’m usually just exhausted. 
To return to the clunky Magic Bullet analogy — Yep, that means the end is in sight — I’m not immune to the nutty mish-mash that is “American Horror Story.” I see the allure in the combining and remixing of incongruous elements and it’s those elements, those often high-quality ingredients, that keep me coming back. The eventual results? The actual show itself? It’s pretty much all the same, albeit with different gradations of color, different degrees of chunkiness, varying levels of sweetness. I no longer know if I’m talking about “AHS” or a smoothy. I just know that the sameness is tiring and I yearn for more substance, for a good filet mignon. Of course, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk would probably turn that filet mignon into meatloaf or a beefy milkshake. 
But who am I to quibble with people who like beefy milkshakes?
“American Horror Story: Coven” premieres on Wednesday, October 9 on FX.

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