‘American Horror Story: Coven’ off to a rocky (but promising) start

Save this show, Jessica Lange! You're the best part of it. Photo from USA Today.

Save this show, Jessica Lange! You’re the best part of it. Photo from USA Today.

“American Horror Story” is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult shows in recent memory to pin down tonally, and the premiere of its third season, “Coven,” is no exception.

Take, for instance, the opening flashback scene. One moment we see Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) bawl her daughter out for seducing one of the slaves, overacting like hell and using words like “harlot” and “rutting,” in a twisted, grim parody of the Tom Robinson case in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It’s all very silly and overblown in a way that’s likely intentional, but immediately afterward, we smash cut to slaves being brutally tortured in an attic, culminating in the recently accused slave having a hollowed bull’s head placed on top of his so that he resembles a minotaur. Um… okay.

Is this still in “campy sick joke” territory? Have we crossed the border to horror? We don’t know. Ryan Murphy doesn’t seem to know, either. And sadly, much of the premiere of “Coven” exists in this no-man’s-land between horror and camp, excelling at neither, failing at neither, and only succeeding in making the viewer uncomfortable (and not in a good way). It’s not awful. We’ve seen “American Horror Story” do much worse than this, but Murphy and Co. will have to get their rears in gear if “Coven” is going to come anywhere close to living up to the hype.

Does this look like the face of a vaginal murderess? If you said no, you're wrong. Photo from hypable.

Does this look like the face of a vaginal murderess? If you said no, you’re wrong. Photo from Hypable.

Our main story follows innocent Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who seems like a nice, well-adjusted teenage girl… except she’s a witch whose power enables her to kill people with her vagina. She’s sent to an academy for young witches in New Orleans, where she meets catty, telekinetic Madison (Emma Roberts), sassy human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), quiet, clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) and mysterious headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson).

They are all descendants of the Salem witches (who were smart enough to flee when the trials began), and the last of a dying breed. Soon enough, Fiona (Jessica Lange), the Supreme witch (the most powerful in the world) and Cordelia’s mother, arrives with the intent of making the girls into fighters against those who would subjugate them.

Because there are so many characters (and presumably, plot points) set up over the course of the episode, there’s mounds of exposition, some of them more awkward than others. This slows down much of the episode, and gets in the way of the stuff we came to see: the crazy/goofy/just plain weird horror set pieces. “Asylum” handled the mixture of information and insanity with aplomb in its premiere, and it’s disappointing to see such a regression in storytelling. It’s far more coherent than the opening to “Murder House,” though.

The few set pieces are pretty good, though. In particular, Fiona sucking the life out of a man who promised her an anti-aging option while high on coke as “Inna Gadda Da Vida” howls on the soundtrack and a dinner table showdown between the four young witches produce the appropriate (inappropriate?) laughs and jolts.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs all of this with dizzying combination of deep fish-eye lens, Dutch angles, Baz Luhrmann-esque fast edits and sickeningly saturated colors, which excels during a frat party which actually pays homage to the fish tank Meet Cute in Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” While the over-the-top directorial approach works in the big set pieces, it flounders in scenes of daily activities, ruining the abundant atmosphere by drawing attention to itself. The use of a repetitive leitmotif in the score destroys any sort of tension as well, particularly given that its fluffy air fits very few of the scenes it’s attached to.

While Murphy’s choice of setting (the South), mostly-female cast and theme (witchcraft and its history) provide rich thematic ground for both campy scares and genuine human drama concerning the subjugation of both women and minorities, but he loses the thread by playing into the abuse of his characters without logical reasons to do so. Most glaringly, a horrific gang-rape sequence against one of the girls gets a massive buildup and a sickening execution, but the girl’s revenge happens just barely offscreen, denying any sort of proper closure on such a traumatic event. It seems more like lurid provocation than a desire to explore real human issues.

The performances are universally great, however. Lange steals every single scene she’s in with one-liners that are both silly and awesome (“Don’t make me drop a house on you” is a favorite). Bates and Angela Bassett are clearly having fun adapting to the rather, shall we say, unique tone of the show, and Farmiga and Paulson give surprisingly nuanced performances in what could have been very bland roles.

It’s a little too soon to see if “Coven” will continue down this path or grow into something that fully explores the implications of its premise, but we’ll gladly follow it down the rabbit hole for now in hopes that it will only get better as it goes along.

“American Horror Story: Coven”

Speakeasy Grade: B for camp/entertainment value, C for substance

Starring: Jessica Lange, Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett

Wednesdays, 10pm & 11pm, FX

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