American Horror Story: Coven Review | Fanboys Anonymous

American Horror Story: Coven Review

Posted by DAJB Friday, November 1, 2013
Not being a huge fan of the horror genre, I'd never watched either the original American Horror Story or the follow-up season, American Horror Story: Asylum. However, maybe because Sleepy Hollow has been so successful or maybe just because the first episode was being aired here in the UK on the day before Halloween, I decided to give the third series, American Horror Story: Coven, a try.
Fiona Goode (the Supreme) presides over Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies
In retrospect, choosing Vlad the Impaler as her interior
decorator may have been a mistake.
Witches, it seems are the new vampires. Or, at least, someone in TV production land would like them to be. Not since the Halliwell sisters in Charmed and Buffy's Willow have witches featured so prominently in mainstream TV shows. The Witches of Eastwick, Witches of East End, Once Upon a Time's Regina, The Secret Circle, and even Sleepy Hollow's good witches vs bad witches dynamic all seem convinced that there's an audience out there just waiting to have its interest in magic-wielding femmes fatales pricked, like so many thumbs. American Horror Story: Coven is the latest show to try to tap into this demand. But does it hubble and bubble, or is it just a steaming cauldron of toil and trouble?

Sex with Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) will get you killed
Zoe Benson. Trust me ... you wouldn't!
Weird sisters

The first episode introduces us to a boarding school for young witches, a kind of single-sex Hogwarts without all the quirky but friendly teachers. It's a small school. It boasts just four pupils, and they conveniently conform to a whole bunch of the usual teen archetypes: the new "good" girl Zoe (played by Taissa Farmiga); the rich, bitchy one Madison (Emma Roberts); the plain, apparently slow-witted one Nan (Jamie Brewer); and the fat, black one Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe). It's not exactly inspired characterisation, but it's a broader range than the impossibly pretty girls and boys of The Secret Circle. Naturally enough, each of the girls has a unique witchy power and it falls to the kindly school principal (Sarah Paulson) to teach them how to develop and control it.

Without revealing too many significant plot spoilers, the first episode succeeds in cramming in an awful lot. There is enough exposition to fill a whole library of arcane tomes, explaining the history of the school and witches in general, a brief introduction to the girls' powers, an episode-specific plot which has Zoe accompanying Madison to a frat party, and the beginnings of an overarching story line concerning the unscrupulous chief witch, known as the Supreme (Jessica Lange), and a sadistic Creole socialite from the 1700s (Kathy Bates).

Torture of naked black slaves is a speciality of Madame Delphine LaLaurie
Kathy Bates, reduced to doing her own make-up.
Has a tendency to use too much blusher.
Something wicked

Despite having to include so much content, however, AHS: Coven is crisply and concisely written and, like other recent successful dramas from the US, is a full hour in length rather than the usual 40 minutes. This pays dividends. The plot is allowed to unfold without feeling rushed, and the characters develop at a measured pace, neither hurried nor interminably drawn out in a prolonged Whedonesque tease. There is a nicely balanced mix of action, character interaction, reveals and hints of more to come.

Of course, in a medium like television, the writing is only as good as the actors delivering the lines. In AHS: Coven, the younger cast members are well enough suited to their roles, but it's the more experienced cast members who really shine. For those of us who still remember Jessica Lange best for running screaming from the giant, hairy hands of King Kong back in the 1970s, her performance as the domineering, self-obsessed Supreme is spellbinding, while Kathy Bates is once again at her frighteningly cruel best, taking a perverse delight in devising new ways to torture and kill her slaves.

Teenage foursome with Jessica Lange American Horror Story: Coven
Every girl knows the importance of owning a Little Black Dress.
Little Black Hats ... not so much.
By the end of the episode, Lange and Bates finally meet and, whilst our four teen witches may be the supposed central characters, the prospect of seeing these two veterans sparking off each other in future episodes is mouth-watering.

I'm melting

Having never seen the previous seasons of American Horror Story, I wasn't sure what to expect from AHS: Coven and, not being a huge horror fan, I doubted whether I'd be returning to it after this first episode. In the event, the acting and writing cast their spell over me and I'm now not only looking forward to the rest of this season, I'm also very tempted to go back and play catch-up with the previous two. With so many witchy-themed shows around at the moment, AHS: Coven may not be the most original show on TV, but its ingredients are so well mixed together that it makes for a potion as intoxicating as any bewitched poppy field in Oz.

Have you seen this series yet? Let us know if it managed to cast a spell over you too!

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