By Alec Stern, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 16, 2013
If the colder weather and falling leaves weren’t enough to remind you that it’s October, our television screens are once again filled to the brim with zombies, witches, ghouls and ghosts. Among the signature Halloween programming, Ryan Murphy’s wonderfully weird anthology series, “American Horror Story,” made its return last week. The new iteration, subtitled “Coven,” delves into the history of witchcraft and the fictitious witching scene in New Orleans. Many of “Horror Story” ’s signature actors are back and joined by exciting newcomers in this wild and alluring new chapter.
American Horror Story: Coven
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
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“AHS: Coven” starts out distinctly and surprisingly straightforward. Series staples Jessica Lange (“King Kong”) and Sarah Paulson (“Mud”) play mother and daughter who both attended Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. These “exceptional young ladies” are, in fact, witches. Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx now runs the school, which has enrollment of four students including “AHS” alum Taissa Farmiga (“The Bling Ring”) and Emma Roberts (“We’re The Millers”). Kathy Bates (“Harry’s Law”) also stars as Delphine LaLaurie, a real-life, 19th-century serial killer in whom Lange’s character Fiona takes a special interest.
It’s worth noting that, on paper, nothing about “American Horror Story” should work. Dylan McDermott wrestling a ghost in a leather suit should feel silly. Lange performing a campy rendition of “The Name Game” in the middle of an asylum-set horror series should make you cringe. But this is “American Horror Story,” which means any conventional wisdom does not apply. Murphy has created a world so bizarrely and perplexingly enticing that the words “should” or “shouldn’t” don’t exist. Kathy Bates as a historical character hell-bent on having her own real-life Minotaur? SURE. Just sit back, enjoy and try not to question why it’s so amazingly compelling. It just is.
In terms of ambition, “Coven” already feels more “Murder House” than “Asylum.” Whereas the latter came out guns blazing from the very start (Nuns! Mad Scientists! Aliens!), “Murder House” was arguably a more subdued saga, focused on its singular haunted house storyline. So far, “Coven” seems to follow “Murder House” ’s delicate footsteps, introducing one, witches-as-the-oppressed dramatic narrative. With that being said, the after-show season preview suggests that like “Asylum,” “Coven” will get crowded (Zombies! Frankenstein!).
Naturally, most of the premiere episode, “Bitchcraft,” is about fleshing out the tone of the miniseries, which isn’t quite nailed down yet. Though all three iterations have a distinct “AHS” feel, “Murder House” and “Asylum” were able to establish enough tonal and thematic differences to set them apart from one another. Co-creator Murphy has described “Coven” as a lighter series than its predecessors — he set out to make it an easier watch than the exceedingly dark “Asylum.” While the premiere establishes this feeling a bit, it didn’t quite strike the right balance between the desired playfulness and the horror, at times feeling neither here nor there.
Regardless, the actors in “AHS” have consistently outshined the series’ plot or tone, and “Coven” is no exception. Lange continues to deliver a master-class performance as a witch determined to defy the aging process. Evan Peters (“Kick Ass”) and Farmiga have a beautiful chemistry together as strong here as it was in the first season. It’s also no surprise that Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett (“Olympus Has Fallen”) are perfect in their spellbinding (if you will) roles as rival sorceresses.
“Bitchcraft” is also one of the scarier entries in the “AHS” series. Beginning with a truly frightening 1830’s torture sequence, followed directly by the revamped, hair-raising opening credits, the premiere doesn’t let viewers forget that this is, as promised, a horror story.
All in all, “Coven” is a pleasing start for a series that usually finds its stride somewhere in the middle.