October 10, 2013

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “American Horror Story – Coven”



Caged and tortured slaves, mid-coitus spontaneous brain aneurisms and gang rape aside, the COVEN season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY was relatively restrained in its start, at least compared to other AHS seasons.  There appears to be one basic story being told, and all the mythology is witch-related, rather than being a jumble of the detritus in series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s minds.

Or perhaps “jambalaya” is a better word, as this year the show brings us to New Orleans, and a considerably more sinister and baroque one than in The Originals, despite the latter show’s brew of vampires and werewolves in addition to witches.  Miss Robichaux’s School for Exceptional Girls, the nation’s best finishing school for budding witches, currently has a total of four students:  murderously telekinetic movie star Madison (Emma Roberts), clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer), human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and newcomer Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), whose odd power is that stunt of causing her sexual partners to rupture during intercourse.  Each witch, we’re told, has a single power–except the Supreme, who has them all.  The reigning Supreme is Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), mother of school headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who has just flown (not on a broom) into town and announced her intention to take over classes–a decision that infuriates her daughter, since they despise each other to begin with and have completely opposite views on how witches should be raised (Cordelia believes in suppressing one’s powers and living as normal a life as possible, while Fiona lets her witch flag fly).

In fact, Fiona has an ulterior motive for returning to New Orleans.  Obsessed with regaining her youth, she knows that the keeper of those monstrously treated slaves, Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) was poisoned by voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) with a potion that preserved her to be buried alive for almost 200 years.  Minus the buried alive part, Fiona wants the secret of that elixir.  There’s also a local Cajun witch, Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who although apparently burned at the stake, is a series regular, so sure to be around; similarly, frat boy Kyle (Evan Peters) can’t be quite as dead as his end in a fiery bus crash (caused by Madison in a very Carrie moment) seems to suggest.

Coven pushes the content envelope about as far as basic cable dares, as the previous AHS seasons did, but its narrative is comparatively straightforward, and promises plenty of campy scares.  The initial episode, written by Murphy and Falchuk, does a smooth job of introducing the large cast and setting out the major conflicts.  The series is a gift for visual-minded directors, since “too much” is the norm, and series vet Alfonso Gomez-Rejon went heavy in the premiere on tilted angles and menacingly gliding camera moves.  The interior design of the school is a nice touch–amidst the usual rococo of the series, its stark whiteness is striking.  (On the other hand, a supposed LA hotel room where Lange sucked the life out of an anti-aging doctor was so fake-looking that it could have been a set from an afternoon soap opera.)

As with the visuals, the actors on AHS get to throw caution to the winds, and thanks to the variety of the show’s anthology structure, offering new characters and storylines every year, most of the cast members are back for their 2d or 3rd turns, with Bates and Roberts (and Bassett and Sidibe as guest stars) the major new faces.  The show’s trademark performer is Lange, who relishes every insane twist of her overscaled characters, and this season it should be particular fun to watch her mix it up with Bates and Bassett, neither a shrinking violet.

American Horror Story has been a solid hit for FX, premiering last season with a 2.2 rating (although that fell to 1.3 by the season finale, perhaps reflecting sheer exhaustion with a storyline that included psychiatric asylum horrors, Nazis, serial killers and aliens from outer space).  This season–so far, at least–appears to be aiming for more consistency, and that should keep its audience more, well, spellbound.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."