NOTE: Last week when American Horror Story: Coven premiered I hadn’t been planning on reviewing it. But after the first two episodes it seems I’ve had a change of heart and weekly coverage will commence as of now. I’ve pulled the first two episodes into one review as I felt the premiere episode was essential to review in order to give you readers a solid sense of where I stand on this season as a whole. Also, there will be spoilers.
Let me make this one-hundred percent clear: I do not like the work of Ryan Murphy, and by extension, Brad Fulchuk. They seemingly lack the ability to comprehend the concepts of subtlety and nuance, both of which are a necessity in any kind of sustainable storytelling. Take the first installment of American Horror Story (which has now retroactively been titled Murder House, a name which perfectly captures precisely how devoid of subtlety these two are). Murphy’s sensibilities worked sharply against a concept that would need quiet moments and restraint in pacing in order to work effectively. And so, Murder House ended up being a clunky mess that is neither engaging nor frightening. Murphy’s affinity for the shamefully obtuse sapped that season of any narrative depth and tension, essentially neutering it’s ability to be the effective “horror story” it’s title suggests. The same can be said of any of his shows, but Murder House is the best example of Murphy gone horribly and grotesquely awry.
Which brings us to American Horror Story: Coven, which lured me back to the series (I skipped Asylum out of disdain for the first season) due to my intense love for New Orleans culture, horror, and the mix of the two. And for the first time, in my experience, Ryan Murphy has actually found a platform where his particular style not only suits the material, but actually enhances it. Witchcraft and Voodoo are subjects that both thematically lend themselves to theatricality, and if there’s one thing Ryan Murphy knows how to do, it’s put on a show. *cue lavish musical number here*
Episode One: Bitchcraft
Our first episode, appropriately titled Bitchcraft is a remarkably balanced hour of AHS. It’s narrative is clear and the characters each get enough of the spotlight to establish themselves and their place in the group dynamic. The performances of Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson really anchor this first episode, the former two giving a full dosage of the tongue-in-cheek camp that makes this show fun, and the latter really providing a credible heart to a story otherwise preoccupied with profound selfishness. Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer also seem to be having fun, both are rather one-note, but in a charming way, rather than in the insufferable manner that so often infests Ryan Murphy shows. Speaking of which, rounding out our ensemble are Taissa Farmiga and Emma Roberts, who take up a peculiar amount of screen time for characters who are neither very likable or particularly interesting. Farmiga’s character, Zoe, is a flake and Roberts’ Madison is an unsavory spoiled brat who is impossible to pity. Their subplot, which involves gang-rape and murder by magical vagina is both unpleasant and too straight-faced to be fun like the most rest of the episode. This presents a problem which happens to be the biggest problem with the premiere episode (and of this show in general): it is completely unclear when it is being tongue-in-cheek and when it is being serious.
In a show as ridiculous and over-the-top as AHS tends to be, things get messy (and much, much less fun) when Murphy turns his eye to whatever social issue he’s decided to messianically rectify this go-round. Coven happens to be “addressing” the issue of (sigh) slavery. Actually, prejudice and marginalization really seem to be the running themes, but slavery is the subject by which the show kicks off, and it doesn’t go down quite like I assume Mr. Murphy and Mr. Fulchuk intended. The sequences in question, where Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Bates) takes it upon herself to torture her African slaves by means of disfiguration and experimentation, are neither silly enough to be tongue-and-cheek, nor are they genuine enough to be moving and serious. As they are, they’re appalling and rather disturbing. The presentation of the scenes remains the same as any other in AHS; goofy and campy. But that does not change the fact that what is being portrayed onscreen is legitimately horrifying and saddening, and it left me with a distinctly bad taste in my mouth. I’m all for pushing boundaries and overriding taboos, but what we have here is quite simply a deeply painful subject matter that is being handled in a manner that is tasteless and verging on disrespectful. As genuine as Mr. Murphy may be, there are some issues that simply should not be touched by a man who has the nuance and sensitivity of a baseball bat to the nether regions.
Episode Two: Boy Parts
The gap between what works and what doesn’t widens a bit further in the second episode, the best parts manage to far outdo anything in episode one, but the worst elements also come back with a vengeance. Here, Lange really gets to strut her stuff, doling out beautifully venomous verbal lashings and magically pimp-slapping angsty teenagers for their deeply aggravating incompetence. Angela Bassett is also given something to do in this episode as Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, and she serves as a perfect foil to Lange’s biting sass. Watching these titans masterfully handle the deliciously bitchy dialogue is a dependable source of joy, and the scene where these two go at it manages to largely make up for the rest of the episode’s shortcomings. Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson really manage to make the best out of mostly lackluster material here. Rabe’s character is a bit too thin for her to really dive into and Paulson’s story feels rushed and undercooked. That being said, both of the actresses know how to handle Murphy’s dialogue and are competent enough to make their uninspired material enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the titular Madison/Zoe subplot takes a turn for the stupid-and-not-in-the-fun way in this episode, which is a shame because I don’t see where it could possibly be going, and even worse, I don’t care to find out. To be clear, I like Taissa Farmiga. I think she’s a good actress who can really make her mark when given good material, but in the hyper-superficial Murphy-world, she simply doesn’t have the pizazz to make her deeply silly dialogue work in her favor. Her character is thin as can be, her only defining trait being that she’s an impulsive flake who spends way too much time crying to be any kind of fun. Sure, Farmiga is good at crying, that doesn’t make this character or her story any less aggravating to sit through. Roberts, on the other hand, is almost fun. Her character has the air of colorful spitefulness that Murphy characters thrive off of, but her actual dialogue falls mostly flat, particularly in Boy Parts. On the subject of “boy parts”, Evan Peters is embarrassing himself in this by no fault of his own. Peters playing Frankenstein opposite Farmiga’s deathly serious performance is comedic, but in a “laugh at you not with you” kind of way. The “relationship” established between these two characters was never the slightest bit believable in the first place, so their scenes together are so devoid of dramatic meaning that they have nothing left to be except unintentionally funny. There is no compelling endgame to this subplot because there was never anything compelling about it or the characters in it and the less time wasted on it and them in the future, the better. Knowing Murphy I can only assume he’ll continue plowing along based on the assumption that everybody and their mother cares about these particular characters and continue to give them an unwarranted amount of spotlight. But hey, if that’s the price I have to pay to continue to watch Lange, Bassett and Bates chew the living hell out of every piece of scenery, then so be it. Totally worth it.
I like Coven. At it’s core I really like what it’s shooting to do. I like seeing Murphy’s constantly misguided talents be put to some good use. I like seeing witches with cool powers do battle with each other all while delivering some seriously kicking one-liners and verbal beat downs. If this season of AHS can manage to stay on the track that these first two episodes have set up then I will love it to death. The more ridiculous, showy and over-the-top this thing gets, the better.
Bitchcraft grade: B
Boy Parts grade: B-
I straight up laughed out loud at the reveal that Bastien has literally become a Minotaur. It was possibly the dumbest thing I had seen in both of these episodes, but it was just so perfect. There’s a literal Minotaur in this show? Of course there’s a literal Minotaur in this show.
Goodness I love seeing Jamie Brewer on this show, warms my heart to see an actress with downs making it on a show that isn’t expressly about developmental issues. The one big upside to Murphy’s messianic tendencies.
This show, episode two in particular, continues the Ryan Murphy theme of having all black women on his shows say “girl” every other second and act like total divas. The Voodoo Queen runs a tacky hair-braiding shop with the assistance of some slang-talkin’ young black women? You betcha. I was just grateful we had moved past slave torture at that point.
Are we even shooting for actual scares on this show anymore? I haven’t actually been frightened even once so far and it seems like the writers aren’t even trying. In which case: good. They suck at it. Murder House was so filled with unscarey scares it was criminal. Does the Horror Story title still make sense? Barely. But it’s ironically better off for it.
Andrew Allen is a television (and occasionally film) writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.