Last night I attended a Blu-ray/DVD release event for “American Horror Story: Asylum” at the legendary (and supposedly haunted) Linda Vista Hospital in Los Angeles. We saw some special features from the Second Season set that looked pretty in-depth (given the location of the event, a lot of what we saw focussed on the sets for Briarcliff Asylum) and were treated to a lengthy Q&A with Asylum regulars Naomi Grossman (“Pepper”) and Barbara Tarbuck (“Mother Superior Claudia”).
As interesting as that stuff was, my most anticipated moment of the evening was the premiere of the first episode of “American Horror Story: Coven“. I was a huge fan of the first season of Ryan Murphy’s out-of-its-mind anthology series but my enthusiasm cooled somewhat during the first couple episodes of Season 2. Obviously the good news in regard to this show is that, unlike “Homeland”, its literally impossible for them to write themselves into a corner for too long. Each season is a fresh reset button, something “Coven” takes great advantage of.
In hindsight, I think the reason I ultimately tuned out of “Asylum” was the setting. The characters Murphy comes up with are so insane it’s a shame to put them in a context that so openly reminds the viewer of the divide between “AHS” and reality. They work much better in the real world, where they contrast with and rub up against normal people, normal settings and normal societal conventions. Consciously or not, “Coven” recognizes and rectifies this.
Fans who loved Taissa Farmiga in Season 1 will be happy to know that she’s front and center here, the world here seems to be as much through her eyes as the world of Hogwarts is through Harry Potter’s. That’s not an accidental analogy either -Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies Farmiga stars as a Zoe Benson, a young witch who is only beginning to be clued into her powers (via a scene that echoes Rogue’s self discovery in X-Men with the sexuality turned up to 11). She’s sent to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a “finishing school” for young witches in New Orleans, and we’re off to the races.
Murphy makes an excellent move here by keeping the number of students at the school to a bare minimum. There are only three other attendees – Emma Roberts (“Madison Montgomery”), Gabourey Sidibe (“Queenie”) and Jamie Brewer (“Nan”) – and it’s refreshing to see the show focus on a few well-drawn characters rather than populating the house with half-baked stereotypes. The Academy is run by Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx, a kindly witch who tries to rule with a benevolent hand but is often stymied by the mischievous, and perhaps villainous, Jessica Lange (playing the vampier than thou Fiona Goode). There are two different side stories that feed into the narrative at the Academy (one featuring Kathy Bates, the other focussing on Lily Rabe), but it’s better if you discover for yourselves how they tie in.
The great pleasure of “Coven” comes from watching all of these personalities collide with each other (and the surrounding world) in inventive ways. As dumb as “American Horror Story” pretends to be, its incredibly smart about the business at hand – which is entertaining and shocking its audience. And make no mistake, I was shocked by a lot of it. There’s some subject matter here that I might have expected to see on HBO (albeit, I’ve never seen an HBO show take a similar tonal approach to this kind of material), but not on FX. Still, once I got past my own moral queasiness, it was easy to dive back into being enthralled with the program.
I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, so I’m going to have to end it here. Just be sure to check into FX tomorrow night at 10PM. “American Horror Story: Coven” is bloody, sexy, hilarious, gloriously tacky and out of its f*cking mind – just the way we like it. It’s wrong in all the right ways.