American Horror Story: Coven

Film & TV, Small Screen June 19, 2014

For a season of grand premises and previous series highs, one does expect when it comes to American Horror Story. As one of the most forward thinking programmes in this new wave of cinematic television, its audience is very often spoiled it regards to plot, production and the quality of its actors and – much like the recently demised Breaking Bad (have a read of my Life After… Breaking Bad post) – American Horror Story is pivotal in reshaping the long stagnant mold of what we have come to expect as customary from a TV show.

As you may or may not be aware, the format of the programme changes every season, refreshing the palette in a series of alternate universes with different characters and plot lines all held together by a solid rotating cast. One of the most fun aspects of watching American Horror Story is seeing what incarnations its actors will take next; it acts as an actor’s condensed portfolio, and seeing promising youngsters (such as the ever impressive Evan Peters) or alternately undervalued talent (most poignantly the fantastically skilled Jessica Lange) grip and dissect their characters season after season is highly gratifying.

Whilst it is always easy to focus all attention on the visual stars of any screen tale, the height of credit is always to be bestowed upon its principal creators. Long-term co-writing partners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, most notably of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame, have created narratives so twisted that they recount the best of classic psychological horrors. The decision to shirk the gore of the horror films of the past ten years in favour of plot twists and cliffhangers in worlds based in historical actuality is a wise one, as there is nothing creepier than the potential reality of events that were either possible – such as the hauntings akin to season 1’s Murder House – or fact – such as the cruelty of early psychiatric treatment in Asylum and the burnings of the Salem Witch Trials that helped to inspire Coven.

Speaking of Coven, it is near impossible to avoid comparing the narratives of each season that fall under the anthological umbrella that is American Horror Story, and after the superlative tale that Asylum wove, Coven had a lot to live up to. Set in 1800’s New Orleans as well as the present day, the story focuses on the conflicts between two types of magic using dynasties; witches and voodoo practitioners. Whilst affiliating magical types according to race and culture highlights the tensions of the Deep South – and even including Cathy Bates as the gruesomely torturous and conflicting Madame Delphine LaLaurie – one cannot help but feel as though it does not push the boundaries enough. Many of the actors deserved more, and it is hard to evade the thought that the writers created characters to simply act as plot devices as opposed to pivotal, fully rounded subjects of the narrative. Whilst this was similarly lacking in the first series – though not to the same extent – it was absolved to near perfection in Asylum, to the point of even making the tale of mythical slaughterer Bloodyface appear believable. With that in mind, Lange as femme fatale Coven head Fiona Goode appears little more than shallow in her vindictive attempts to secure her supremacy from her young apprentices, whilst Peters is reduced to a grunting, shuffling lump following his resurrection (not a plot spoiler!) and… piecing back together. Bad girl Madison (Emma Roberts) is similarly insufferable, whilst others such as Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) are, for the most part, bland.

Bland can be extended to the plot itself; it had the makings of something dark and brilliant, but ultimately failed to rack up the any real tension, with action sequences being short and sparse. For writers that are usually so brilliant at concocting fully rounded and unconventional female characters, the women of Coven  – especially those who were witches – felt little more than high school cliches. The bad girl (Madison), the femme fatale popular girl (Fiona) and her nemesis (Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau), the bookworm (Cordelia), the eccentric (Myrtle Snow, portrayed by Frances Conroy), the tough cookie (Gabourney Sidibe’s Queenie) and the literally brain-dead high school jock (Evan Peters as Kyle).

All of this sounds pretty damning, but it has to be pointed out that – because it is such a high calibre series – American Horror Story: Coven still succeeds in being above average in regards to cast performance, visuals and production. There are moments of brilliance (such as Lily Rabe’s modern-day hippy Misty Day meeting her idol Stevie Nicks in her cameo as a witch, the salon shootout, and Papa Legba’s vision of hell), but despite such, the feeling that it could have been so much more cannot be washed away. With the theme for the fourth season being recently announced as Freak Show, it raises hopes for a return to the uncomfortably creepy and grotesque nature of the previous seasons.

Prepare to be scared.

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