Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s shows are presented as serial narratives, but these two are not storytellers. Nor are they button-pushing provocateurs, even though Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story deal in hot-button issues and delight in courting “controversy.” Basically, Murphy and Falchuk settle on a tone—tawdry, soiled-sheets soap opera for Nip/Tuck; happy-time inspirational musical for Glee; charnel-house camp for AHS—and start cooking up brightly colored images and flashy set pieces that contribute to that tone. Nothing these guys have ever done or said in public indicates that they’re deep thinkers; they appear to work on instinct, without much in the way of a coherent plan, so it’s no surprise that their shows tend to be messy. AHS is the biggest, boldest mess of them all, starting with the promise that it’s a delivery system for big statements about what horror means in America (or maybe the horror of America).
It’s never been more of a mess than in its current season. In setting the action among a coven of witches—and throwing in a long-standing battle between a sadistic, immortal slave owner (Kathy Bates) and a voodoo queen (Angela Bassett)—American Horror Story: Coven focuses on issues of race and the persecution of women in a “playing with fire” fashion. It’s not clear that Murphy and Falchuk have anything in particular to say about race, but they say their nothing-in-particular with customary gaudiness. Because they’re more reckless, the results may feel more exciting than in a carefully executed, liberal message drama that’s tediously easy to read.
Coven is at its most entertaining when it flirts with mocking those kind of thoughtful, well-meaning message shows. In the comic high point of this season, young witch Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) attempts to deprogram the racist torturer Madame LaLaurie by forcing her to watch Roots. This sendup of A Clockwork Orange works just the way that it’s supposed to: LaLaurie is moved to tears and renounces her cruel, bigoted past. But because the heart is made of more twisted stuff than Alex Haley ever imagined, she reverts to her old ways and is later seen conducting a tour of her old home. There, she disappoints tourists who want to hear lurid tales from her torture chamber by assuring them that the Madame was simply “a brilliant hostess to high-society soirees” and renowned for “her tireless charity work.” This is a sharp and welcome satire of the literal whitewashing of the American past, depicting the antebellum South as a place where genteel aristocrats were merely admiring each other’s table manners when the Yankee aggressors came pouring over the hill. Murphy and Falchuk have much sharper and more sophisticated ideas about pop culture than they do about human cruelty.
If AHS: Coven is about anything, it’s about being fabulous, specifically about being a fabulous dame. The ostensible motor for the plot is the search for a new Supreme to take the place of dying coven leader Fiona (Jessica Lange), but the younger witches never seem that important to the overall scheme. The camera feasts on Taissa Farmiga’s clear-faced youth, but she and co-star Emma Roberts don’t have that seasoning of experience, the been-through-hell-with-head-held-high quality of their elders. Lange and Frances Conroy aren’t just major actresses but divas, fashion-iconic and plausible candidates for grand marshal of a gay-pride parade. (Bassett has it, too, but the show doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea what to do with her.)
In the end, this show understands and cares about style much more than it understands or cares about morality. When the voodoo deity Papa Legba (Lance Riddick, having a blast) consigns Madame LaLaurie to hell, he itemizes all the things that separate her from the evil goddesses on the top of the hill. He’s careful to include her crimes “against passion and fashion” along with the minor stuff like torture and murder. (Murder is easy to shrug off on a show where practically every character has been killed and resurrected.)
In one of his weekly reviews of AHS: Coven, Todd VanDerWerff complained that the show is meant to be about “women and black people and the living dead taking back their power from their oppressors, but it’s, instead, mostly about a bunch of minorities doing battle with each other, rather than actually striking back at their oppressors.” But Murphy and Falchuk, with their improvisational, imagist approach, seem past the point of putting in the hard, sweaty work of building a plot. They’d rather just spend time with the characters that amuse them, and so Coven barely pays lip service to the witches’ would-be oppressors, because the oppressors lack the necessary flair. Michael Cristofer, TV’s man you love to hate from Rubicon and Smash, is wasted as the leader of a shockingly ineffectual witch-hunting organization. There’s still no one better at shaking his head and flashing a toothy, rueful grin while waiting for his triumphant adversaries to cut his throat, though.
On the other hand, this is the first season of American Horror Story that contains no tragically frustrated same-sex love story, which suggests that the writers have also grown too lazy to approach the subject of real passion and romantic longing. The sexual relationships here—between Fiona and a resurrected serial killer (Danny Huston) and between Farmiga’s character and a Frankenstein-monster frat boy (Evan Peters)—mostly reflect bemused wonder over the eternal question of what, exactly, heterosexual men are supposed to be good for. (Both Huston and Peters proudly define themselves as “guard dog” protectors of women who are quite capable of taking care of themselves.)
American Horror Story’s energetic rush of imagery and shock effects can be viscerally exciting, like a Ken Russell movie. Russell’s movies put that energy at the service of a mindset that recoiled in disgust from sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, so this show counts as a step up. But a show that sacrificed some of that energy in favor of consistency and coherence would be an even bigger step up.
Created by: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Starring: Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Evan Peters
Finale airs: Wednesday on FX at 10:00 p.m. Eastern
Format: Dramatic anthology series
12 episodes watched for review