It’s that time of the year again, a new season of “American Horror Story” has begun and this time its witches, bitches. The guiltiest pleasure of all has arrived and I couldn’t be happier. Indeed Coven takes us to New Orleans (a city rich in magical folklore), more specifically to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a safe haven for the dwindling witch population in the country. “Bitchcraft” introduces us to the world of Coven, full of the campy, shamelessly over the top material, and riddled with the grand stylistic flourishes that have become so characteristic of the series.
There is also an insane amount of exposition in this premiere episode, which manifests itself in multiple uses of voice over narration and flashbacks galore. Once this exposition is unloaded, though, the narrative of Coven seems to be quite straightforward and focused, for “American Horror Story” standards that is, but still laden with an array of intriguing characters. In tune with last season’s focus on the theme of the powerless and cast away (those with mental illness, homosexuals, African Americans, women, etc.), Coven concentrates on the power of the oppressed (primarily African Americans and women in a patriarchal society but we’ll see what else the writers throw at us), which are broadly represented by this diminishing group of witches. Though they have been forced to live “in the shadows” hiding their true nature in fear of prosecution, there are serious indictors that suggest this way of living will soon be over. Perhaps the transition from oppressed and persecuted people to powerful and dominant forces in the world (or their attempts to achieve that) will be the overarching storyline this season.
While I enjoyed Asylum’s dark and harrowing depiction of 60s America, many fans missed the more campy and tongue-in-cheek approach of the first season. There is definitely a lighter approach to Coven, the episode is chockfull of biting humor, and deliciously bitchy dialogue that is sure to provide some respite from gruesome and dark intervals in the story. And there will be plenty of that too, just in this first episode we are treated to possibly the most disturbing cold open to the series ever as well as an upsetting rape scene, which incites a significant storyline for the series’ future.
The heavily stylized way in which the despicable acts are portrayed could diminish their severity or impact and some could say that the show takes a slightly fetishistic view of the gruesome acts of violence. The show takes on such a fast pace and narratively rich approach that impactful moments of trauma don’t have the opportunity to breathe. Sometimes the program becomes just an empty series of horrible acts strung together in order to provide shock value and not necessarily about the characters’ stories. While the great performances elevate the difficult material and some actors are capable to fully communicate the severity of some of the plot points, it would be nice if the writers could rein in some of the exploitative material and exchange it with some character reflection/development.
The writers did improve on this issue with Asylum, in which the key characters emerged to be truly compelling and emotionally engaging characters, so hopefully Coven can continue on in this route and have us feel for these new characters by the end of the season.
The most significant attribute of the show and its biggest draw is the absolutely impeccable cast it has amassed. Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Dennis O’Hare, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, I could go on and on. This is only the people we have seen in the first episode, with “American Horror Story’s” history of amazing guest actors it is only bound to get better as the season progresses.
If anything is worth watching and looking forward to is the many potential character interactions and combinations that such a large and talented cast begs for. Where else are we going to see a coked up Jessica Lange literally sucking the life out of some poor dude, or Kathy Bates menacingly slather her face with blood in a disgusting nightly beauty regimen? These actors are clearly enjoying the over the top-ness of the series and so am I.