Wednesday, March 26, 2014

American Horror Story: Coven (Season Three)

*This review contains SPOILERS for season three (Coven).*

Even though True Detective swiped its "one story, one season, rotating cast" approach to television storytelling, there really isn't anything on TV quite like American Horror Story. AHS fully embraces its campy spirit, while delivering some genuine scares (or at least grotesques) through its balls-to-the-wall approach to storytelling. Part of the fun of watching this show is watching it constantly try to one-up itself, piling chaotic element atop chaotic element and then watching the whole thing fly of the rails into a delirious Grand Guignol. Twin Peaks and Lost are probably the only other major shows in television history to be this openly weird.

The show's third season, subtitled Coven, applied that anything-goes storytelling to a school for young witches in New Orleans. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) can kill people by having sex with them, Madison (Emma Roberts) is a Hollywood star with telekinetic powers, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is basically a human voodoo doll, and Nan (Jamie Brewer) can read people's minds. Presiding over the school is Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who has a toxic relationship with her mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange). Fiona is also the Supreme, the most powerful witch in the world, but she's getting older, and soon she's going to have to choose her replacement. Fiona's enemy, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), is engaging in warfare with the school. There's a self-taught witch who lives in a swamp, Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who possesses extraordinary resurrection powers and could be the next Supreme. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a notorious serial killer in antebellum New Orleans, is discovered to still be alive in her coffin and is unearthed. And Cordelia's mother figure, Myrtle (Frances Conroy), is now the head of the Witches Council and is inspecting the coven.

That's a lot happening all at once, but on this show, it's pretty much the norm. Coven differs from its predecessors, though, in how it handles all of this material.

More after the jump.

For all of its bugfuckery (for lack of a better term), AHS works on some level because it establishes the rules for each season's universe. Yes, there's a lot of crazy things happening in Murder House (season one), but the show laid down the basic principles that the world operated under: the ghosts couldn't leave the house, you die without knowing it happened, etc. The same goes for Asylum (season two): for all the Nazis and aliens and mutants and Bloody Faces and demonic possessions, there was a screwy internal logic guiding those decisions. Things didn't "just happen," at least not when it concerned the core stories that the show was trying to tell. There may be stray elements that don't connect with everything else, but those were often on the periphery of the show's narrative scope, easily presented and forgotten about because they never really had any bearing on the show's focus.

In that same manner, AHS works best when it does have a core narrative focus on which to pin all of its lunacy. Murder House was often a scatter-brained, ugly mess, but at the center of that mess was the story of a dysfunctional family desperately trying to stay together. Asylum - the show's best season so far - boiled everything down to the parallel stories of two women, one who was hoping to expose the Briarcliff Asylum's numerous abuses (Paulson) and another who presided over those same practices, only to find herself the subject of similar oppression (Lange). Having this narrative focus meant that the show could indulge co-creator Ryan Murphy's flights of ADD-addled fancy, because there would be an anchor for the show to return to.

I bring these up because the key flaw in Coven is that it lacks both of these aspects. From the beginning, there's no real definition for what rules operate this skewed version of the Crescent City apart from "because magic." This wouldn't necessarily be an issue if there were some logic for how this magic works, or at least limitations for what it can do. Instead, it just happens in order to push things forward, or to revive a character who's been killed off (by my count, at least six main characters die and come back to life over the course of the season). Zoe, Queenie, Madison, and Nan all gained new powers as the season progressed, but there was never an explanation for why. There was a lot of discussion about who would be the next Supreme, but the show never offered anything about what being the Supreme actually meant, apart from being very powerful. The result is that major "twists" in the plot had their impact blunted. Cordelia is blinded, gets her sight back, then blinds herself again, only to have her sight restored when she becomes the Supreme because that's what the plot called for. It's hard to care about what happens when it can all be undone with the flick of a wrist.

That is, when there are "twists" in what constitutes as a "plot." It's here that Coven suffers the worst, because unlike previous seasons, there's no central plot for the action to revolve around. The season starts with Zoe as the audience surrogate, and it seems like we're going to discover the world of witchcraft through her at the school. Well, until the show decided that finding the new Supreme was more important. No, wait, there's a war brewing between Fiona's coven and Marie Laveau's. No, it's Madame LaLaurie learning tolerance from Queenie. Or is it the witch hunters? Maybe it really is about the search for the new Supreme. But not really, it's the mother-daughter relationship between Fiona and Cordelia. Or maybe it's all of the above. The show never picks a single thread to stick with, and as a result, everything is undercooked and just sort of peters out at best or is completely forgotten at worst.

The lack of narrative focus means that when the show goes on a tangent, it really feels out-of-place and haphazard. The minotaur that LaLaurie creates appears as a great grotesque, but then disappears without comment (especially disturbing given that it more or less rapes Queenie). Danny Huston wanders in as a saxophone-playing serial killer and/or ghost called the Axeman, but is mostly sidelined for a love affair with Fiona and some convoluted plotting so that he ends up being killed by the other witches. Stevie Nicks shows up in two episodes and sings some songs. Lance Reddick dons some red contacts and a thick Nawlins patois as the voodoo devil Papa Legba, but mostly just slinks around. LaLaurie's entire existence never makes much sense. There's a bleach enema followed by forced bleach ingestion. All of this is crazy in its own right, but it's nothing more than a collection of distractions. The writers clearly had an idea for what they wanted to happen, but had no clue how to put all of these disparate elements together coherently.

Not having a clear tether is dangerous for the show's attempts at social commentary, too. Now, none of Ryan Murphy's shows have ever been known for their subtlety, and AHS has always used the gentle touch of Mjölnir in its approach to everything. So when Coven presents itself as the story of minority groups fighting each other while their oppressors lord over them both, there's already reason to worry about how it will treat this material. While the racial commentary could have been much worse, it does come down to Queenie making LaLaurie's severed head watch Roots, which magically undoes her centuries-old, historically-instilled hatred of black people. Similarly, the season's final moments - with Cordelia going on national television to announce the existence of witches and ask for tolerance - is fine in its heavy-handed pedantry, but the comparison of society accepting LGBT people and society accepting witches is forced. Not to mention the fact that the former don't have magic powers that could be the undoing of humanity as we know it. There's potential in these themes and metaphors, but the show doesn't find a way to deploy them well.

It's a shame, too, because a lot of those plots and tangents are really good ideas. If the show could have just picked one, maybe two, of those to serve as the main thread, it could have been a great season. Coven assembled a truly phenomenal cast, and everyone involved gives terrific performances even when their characters make very little sense. In particular, Bates clearly relishes every moment she gets to be Madame LaLaurie, and she chews over every exaggerated syllable with aplomb. Bassett never got enough screentime, but she still made Marie Laveau into one of the season's more fascinating characters, and it was great to see her back in a "major" role. Paulson and Lange have been long-time champions on this series, and this year was no different. But the real MVP of this season was Rabe, who turned Misty into a flighty, interesting character who seemed the most at home within this world. Perhaps this season should have focused on her instead of all the other nonsense.

Ultimately, it's safe to say that Coven was a pretty big letdown from the previous seasons of American Horror Story. That's a shame, because there was so much potential in this story and world, and the show basically squandered all of it. I do have hope for next year, though. Murphy recently announced that the show's subtitle will be Freak Show (never has a title been more appropriate), and it will center on a carnival in 1950s Florida. Once again, that's a premise that's brimming with terrific, terrifying potential. Let's hope they don't whiff it again.

Season grade: C-

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