Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Idiot Box: American Horror Story - Coven - "Bitchcraft" Review

This is the first time I've ever had the occasion to talk about American Horror Story on this blog, since the first season aired before the site existed, and the second aired before I decided to expand into television reviews. Its strange to think I haven't been compelled to give my thoughts on the series until now, considering just how passionate I am about it. That's not to say I'm a devoted fan mind you. In fact, I'd say my love hate relationship with the show is directly proportional to the relationship I have with its creator Ryan Murphy, who brought us the entertainingly excessive Nip Tuck, and then Glee, which I can't watch without fighting the urge to vomit. On any given day, my opinion of American Horror Story vacillates between one of these two extremes as it constantly shifts between addictive must see television and unwatchable garbage. Luckily, the latest witch-centric season Coven seems to be on the former track, at least for now anyway.

American Horror Story is the kind of show where its greatest weakness just happens to be its greatest strength. No matter what the central focus of each self-contained season, Murphy's approach to episodic horror is a simple but mostly effective kitchen sink formula wherein any and every supernatural thing associated with the setting and basic concept of the series is thrown together into one story, then mixed with whatever sickening violation of taboos they forgot to include in the last one. Season One's epic multi-generational ghost story took real life true crime pastiche to absurd levels of crossover fan fiction looping in everything from The Black Dahlia to Columbine in a way that mostly worked, while season two's hodgepodge of demons, mutant freaks, and aliens failed to come together into anything resembling an actual story. Its too early to tell where season three will end up, but its starting out with a lot of potential that has me excited to see where this iteration will go.

Coven is the first season of American Horror Story so far that I actually think has enough going for it that I can see it as a continuing series. Of course, I highly doubt the producers would ever break with their anthology format at this point, but if any premise screamed for more than a one season commitment, its this one. Its basically supernatural feminist X-Men (Or would that be X-Women?), outcast teens with powers brought together under one roof, a secret school where they can hone their powers and hide from the prying eyes and prejudices of normies. If anything, the idea of individual gifts for each student is the one real drawback of the series so far, as it seems a bit limiting for a show centered around magical powers, where there's a lot more room for crazy spells and so forth. Then again, if you allow for each witch to learn new things, you run the risk of making them less unique, as their powers invariably reflect their personalities, and you could eventually find yourself in Harry Potter territory, just with Down Syndrome kids and crazy sadistic racists.

Said crazy racist is played by Kathy Bates, and is probably the highlight of the show, preemptively chewing the scenery and claiming the title of most insane villainess before Jessica Lange gets a chance to come into her own as a character. American Horror Story is a show well known almost to the point of cliche for pushing the envelope in obvious controversy courting ways, and I think they may have outdone themselves this time, with interracial love in the time of slavery and its horrifying bestial consequences, leading into toxic vaginas, all in the first five minutes. I almost wonder if some of the stunt casting might be too on the nose, with Jaime Brewer and Gabourey Sidibe of Precious fame clearly there mostly for shock value due to their unconventional physical appearances. Looking different from how most people on TV are allowed to look is not the same as being interesting, and Sidibe in particular is not a good enough actress to justify the choice.

Still, overall, this first outing sets up a lot of exciting possibilities for any long time fan of this series who knows enough to spot the recurring elements. In particular, we get two actors known for having prominent roles in the series' previous arcs unceremoniously killed off just as their characters were becoming interesting, though naturally its assumed they will both come back in some form. All that and Denis O'Hare once again covered in make-up to make him as creepy as physically possible, and a bizarre ending that suggests more mythology about the nature of witches in this universe than already understood. Whether it turns out to be inspired, or turns into a train wreck, American Horror Story is almost always fun to watch while its unfolding, even if sometimes the end result is more frustrating than satisfying. So far, Coven seems to be a little more streamlined than the previous series, more in-line with the first, and in my mind best season of the show. Its enough to keep me interested, as least for the next few weeks. And there aren't any damn aliens in this one, so there's that.

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