TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Casts a Spell

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Average: 4.7 (3 votes)

CHICAGO – Take this with a giant grain of salt but FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven” shows incredible promise in its premiere episode tonight, setting a number of creative plates spinning in directions that could be fascinating. Why the salt? Well, “American Horror Story: Asylum” started with similar promise and quickly became cluttered and unfocused. Right from the start of “Coven” creators Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk feel more precise in their vision of a truly American horror — the history of witchcraft in Salem, New Orleans, and other supernatural hotbeds of the country. With great performances already, a stellar concept, and Murphy’s twisted, sexual sensibility fully intact, “Coven” will cast a spell this Fall. (Maybe.) Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

The main problem with “Asylum” was that Murphy & Falchuk threw too many ingredients into their cauldron, resulting in a season that felt more haphazard than the brilliant first season. I’ve only seen one episode of “Coven” but it feels like that problem has been corrected by a structure this time that both allows for the narrative meandering that Murphy’s team likes to do and keeps them tied to one story. That structure comes from setting the season at a school for witches — a modern Hogwarts with a lot more mini-skirts and perversion.

Photo credit: CBS

The “Harry Potter” of this dynamic, the new kid in class, is Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), a girl who learns the hard way that her sexuality causes death. She’s immediately carted off to the coven, led by Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), who tries to keep her young female wards in line but struggles to do so against their powers. Each of the young witches has a different power — clairvoyance, telekineticism, human voodoo doll, etc. — allowing Murphy and his writers to play with different abilities like a twisted “Witch X-Men.” Emma Roberts looks to be a scene-stealer as the most outgoing and perhaps deadly of the young witches.

Photo credit: FX

Of course, the school for witches wouldn’t exist without the long history of those who were burned at the stake before them. The episode actually opens with a flashback to a legendary serial killer named Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who paints her face with blood to stay young and tortures slaves in her basement in unimaginable ways. The premiere opens with an “I can’t believe that’s on TV” moment involving a torture chamber she has in her attic.

LaLaurie had an enemy in Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) and she may have a connection to the current leader of the witchcraft world, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Goode is the kind of creation that an actress like Lange eats alive. She’s an over-the-top, aging celebrity Queen with the ability to suck your soul out. She chain smokes, waves her arms, and always has a witty thing to say. Lange chews the scenery in ways that only she can, stealing focus every time she’s on screen, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It fits her part here. She’s the most important person in the room every time and few actresses can pull off that character trait like Lange.

Lange is not alone in terms of ensemble quality this season. Roberts makes a solid addition to a crew that includes “AHS” regulars like Paulson, Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, and Denis O’Hare. And Kathy Bates looks to have exactly the right spirit for the show — not completely tongue-in-cheek but recognizing that one can’t play this kind of insanity with a purely straight face. Lange always kills on “AHS” because she seems to be in on the insanity. Bates has a similar delivery.

Of course, “Coven” could quickly go off the rails. There are a LOT of characters and one hopes that Murphy & Falchuk don’t allow the program to get weighed down in subplots. Even if the show does get scattered, great performances by Lange, Bates, Bassett, Roberts, and Farmiga should keep viewers from wanting to leave this “Coven.”

“American Horror Story: Coven” stars Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Angela Bassett, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Emma Roberts, Denis O’Hare, Kathy Bates, Gabourey Sidibe, Jamie Brewer, and Jessica Lange. It premieres on Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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