TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Coven’

American Horror Story: Coven TV review

A teen witch at a school for her kind? Think Harriet Potter meets torture porn

To proclaim “American Horror Story: Coven” more disciplined and less feverishly twisted than the two previous flights of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX franchise requires grading on a curve. A more coherent plot that resembles a CW show — with a teenage witch dispatched to a special school for her kind (think Harriet Potter) — is paired with Murphy’s penchant for excess, as evidenced by the fact every sex scene is twinned with blood and violence. Finally, what’s become the “AHS” repertory company makes this a highly promotable haven for big names, as well as the customary clinic in over-acting.

The premiere does plant some attractive hooks to pull viewers along, if only to see whether “Coven” can avoid the batty mix of horror clichés that characterized “Asylum” and its ghost-driven predecessor, which benefited from an Emperor’s New Clothes response. In essence, a contingent within media circles figured anything this provocative and bizarre must be brilliant, even if the frenetic stories made virtually no sense.

“Coven” starts out appallingly enough, with a flashback to the 1830s, where a New Orleans matriarch (Kathy Bates, in full hobbling mode) indulges in torture and bathes her face in blood, seeking to maintain a more youthful visage.

Flash ahead to the present, and teenage Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) engages in a first sexual encounter where the blood shed is of a decidedly unorthodox variety. “So apparently I’m a witch,” she says in voiceover, before being whisked off to a special school in New Orleans presided over by a reassuring headmistress (Sarah Paulson), promising to help her charges harness their powers.

Still, what would Professor X’s home for gifted schoolgirls be without a Magneto, here embodied by “AHS” mainstay Jessica Lange as the Supreme. No, not a Diana Ross backup singer, but the most powerful witch of her generation, who turns up on a mission of as-yet-uncertain origins, ominously telling the girls, “When witches don’t fight, we burn.”

As with all three incarnations of “AHS,” there are some beautiful images (courtesy of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Michael Goi), and Murphy and Falchuk’s script exhibits a knowing familiarity with the genre.

Still, there’s always something unsavory about using the supernatural as a shield to indulge in sex-laced sadism, which has become a common and frankly rather tired aspect of the whole latex-clad-gimp streak running through the series — or rather, miniseries, at least for Emmy consideration purposes. And it’s hard not to giggle when a fine actor like Denis O’Hare appears in a fright wig, looking like Riff Raff from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

FX has nonetheless done a savvy job of exploiting the premise to conjure arresting marketing campaigns, and as with AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” timed the return to capitalize on the buildup toward Halloween. In addition, the limited-series approach is perfectly suited to these over-the-top storylines, which would surely crumble under their own weight if forced to run a minute longer.

Murphy and Falchuk do deserve credit for recognizing the commercial viability of bringing the torture-porn aesthetic to TV, even if style obscures the lack of substance. Then again, when an illusion is presented with enough conviction, some people will invariably think they’ve seen real magic.

TV Review: 'American Horror Story: Coven'

(Series; FX, Wed. Oct. 9, 10 p.m.)

Production

Produced by Ryan Murphy Prods. and Brad Falchuk Teley-vision in association with Twentieth Century Fox Television.

Crew

Executive producers, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Dante Di Loreto, Tim Minear, James Wong, Jennifer Salt, Brad Buecker; co-executive producers, Douglas Petrie, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Jessica Sharzer; producers, Joseph Incaprera, Alexis Martin Woodall; director, Gomez-Rejon; writers, Murphy, Falchuk; camera, Michael Goi; production designer, Mark Worthington; editor, Buecker; music, James S. Levine; casting, Robert J. Ulrich, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer. 60 MIN.

Cast

Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, Lily Rabe, Patti LuPone, Denis O’Hare, Taissa Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Gabourey Sidibe, Jamie Brewer, Evan Peters, Danny Huston  

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  1. Davi Khashmal says:

    This guy is a hack. What is important here, (as with many other shows) is that people are entertained and money is made: That’s the whole idea. Then, you have little rats like this one, crawling out of their holes to make money on the backs of the industry that they did not contribute anything to. In fact, the whole existence of rags like Variety, Rolling Stone etc., rely on the creative minds of others to perpetuate their own meaningless endeavours.

  2. Cookie says:

    Unhelpful review. Quit indulging yourself. Write like a normal person for normal people. Maybe you’ll stop irritating your readers. You’re reviewing an F/X tv show, for Christ sake. You’re trying too hard to write smart. And what is the point of interpreting the media & what other critics think?

  3. This review is concise and well reasoned. Why bash it just because you disagree with it? All these comments that deride it are doing the same things that accuse this review of doing. “If you don’t like something move on”…? Take your own advice; some people do not understand that journalism does not need to be blind praise.

  4. DildoInYourEye says:

    Did you even watch the episode? I had a long conversation about it this morning with a co-worker and torture porn never came up. This season promises to be many-layered and creepy and glamorous. Love Love Love it. And kudos to them for making it all about the ladies this year! Lots of great parts for good actresses.

  5. hahah i think if you don’t like something you shouldn’t spend so much time talking about it ,this is the stupidest review i’ve ever seen in my whole life..

  6. Blow Ry On TV says:

    Your job is a joke. I can’t believe you get paid to cobble together such a poor review based on the fact that YOU dislike something. Thanks for bringing the editorial-porn aesthetic online. The fact that you do this for a living (presumably) makes me green with jealous rage.

  7. Kasch says:

    I motion that any critic who uses the word “torture porn” have their reviewer’s license revoked.

  8. add says:

    Oh,look it’s the ‘torture porn’ argument again. One of the most idiotic and unhelpful reviews I read in the past three weeks. What a moron.

    • CharlesMartel says:

      Because it has that same,all-around,ugly,unpleasant style,look and atmosphere,of the “Saw” and other Eli Roth garbage, and their retreads.

  9. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    Oh “torture porn” our ass, Brian Lowry. Sounds like American Horror Story Coven just hits the ground running. We’ll be able to judge for ourselves soon enough!

  10. Mary says:

    Isn’t it all in the eye of the beholder? What’s wrong with the author writing a review from his point of view? If you disagree with him that’s a sign your tastes are different, not that his are wrong or yours right.

    I happen to agree with the review. I liked the first season enough because of the eerie nature and the things in the basement but Asylum – what a mess. The storyline was lame, the acting grandiose and the sexual violence excessive. Gore and sadism with no reason for it other than to attempt to fill a weak plot. Not impressed and quit watching before the season ended.

    Hope this season is better but if it’s anything like the last – pass! And believe me I love the genre but all that rape, blood and bondage dumbs down a show that didn’t need it the first season.

  11. Tyler says:

    The reviewer hates the show and is completely closed minded and opinionated against it. His lack of professionalism and ability to do his job correctly leads to a terrible review which gives you nothing except stuff you’ve already seen in trailers. Wait, I was wrong you also get his clear hatred of the show to the point where he acts like a baby and refuses to like it or even give it half a chance.

    To sum it all up: This review is useless.

    This was my review of the the review.

  12. There’s only one male regular(Evan Peters), right?

  13. stephanie says:

    Since I am an avid viewer of the show, I will formulate my opinion. Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates together is a good start.

  14. Cory says:

    Worst review I’ve ever read. Nice writers you got there Variety.

  15. John says:

    What a dreadfully written “review”. The writer clearly has no interest in this show, or any of the previous seasons. As such, I have absolutely no interest in what he has to say. Utterly pointless.

  16. Alisa says:

    It seems that his review is based off the many trailers that have been released for AHS Season 3: Coven. Not from watching the show.

  17. richard says:

    This seems to be one of those “reviews” that perfectly explain why nobody really listens to critics anymore. Pretentious, malicious, opinionated and at the same level of dumb commentary than any teenager in high school may made. You don’t like the show, not sexy s/m inspired fantasies than involve horror and frivolous stuff. Okeydokey. So what? What makes this review any better than any vapid comment at the coffee machine in the office from a loser co-worker? It must be really sad to pass through this life doing nothing more than offering irrelevant opinions. Bagging groceries is a far more elevated occupation than peddling yada-yada like this.

  18. James says:

    Jesus you think maybe you just flat out don’t like the show?! I get that it’s your job to give the public your opinion (however off-puting and pretentious that opinion may be) but there is a line between reviewing something that you find repulsive and flat-out trash talking it like your some high school gossip queen. I enjoy the show for what it is. You’ve succeeded in making a couple of fans actually have to question why they enjoy AHS so thanks for you’re debasement of my interests. You’re opinion is that of a god’s

  19. Lola K says:

    Perhaps the old cliche is true…

    “Those who can’t do, teach.”. Well in this case, critique.

    Sounds like Mr. Lowry is an embittered man who can’t appreciate fine acting when it’s literally a few feet from his nose on the television. No, AHS is no Shakespeare, but then again, Shakespeare was full of what Mr. Lowry calls “Torture-porn” as well. Seems to me that someone needs to open his mind to a prevailing genre of today… the supernatural. You may not appreciate the genre itself, Mr. Lowry, but to discredit the superior acting, the brilliant direction and storyline, the superb, uncompromising and completely dedicated cast and the stunning cinematography, only shows how limited your scope of understanding today’s entertainment is.

    I do, however, have to point out that if there weren’t horrible critics like you out there, television may not keep pushing the boundaries. So perhaps instead of castigating you for your critique, perhaps we should be thanking you. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the pleasure of losing ourselves for an hour a week in shows like AHS, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Homeland, etc.

    • Dana says:

      I think this review was just fine. And I happen to be a HUGE fan of AHS. I waited with bated breath until I could finally get this episode off of Amazon aaaaand I was SO DISAPPOINTED! Ugh. Unfortunately, I was completely underwhelmed by a stupid storyline and special effects that harken episodes of Once. The first season of AHS is one of the best horror stories I’ve ever seen (a lot left to the imagination with delicious characters and saucy plot), the second was fine – super bloody with less imagination, and now this third seems like it’s going to be the worst of all – so mih gratuitous crap that I numb to it be the end of the episode: “oh great. Here we go again – what’s this? oh a pancreas. Ok. Yawn. And, sadly, I have to agree with the torture-porn generalization. I think I’m pickin’ up what you’re puttin’ down, Sir. I will continue to watch this show in hopes that it improves, however. I’ve seen the magic in the past! And of course there are some highly inspiring actors on this show. If nothing else, I shall watch those amazing women and take notes. I’m an actor myself and I always enjoy seeing how actors I admire deal with stupid lines. And, finally, I hope you’re not hurt by the lame-o comments on here about your review being horrendous. Me thinks they doth protest too much. It’s a free country, ya idiots. The same right allows you to waste your time bashing something that you “just don’t agree with” as well. Aren’t you grateful for it??

    • Madison says:

      Lola K., amen (to your first paragraph). It’s a shame this is the first ‘news’ result that pops up for AHS: Coven in Google.

      Brian Lowry, sounds like you need to stop reviewing this show, as it sounds like your mind is pretty made up about it. I suppose AHS’ Emmy nods (and one win) were all due to its “torture porn,” as you so eloquently put it. This is why the show is on at 10pm, so real adults can enjoy its full spectrum of entertainment. The writers and cast are amazing. Just go watch Glee or something, geez.

  20. w629 says:

    I watched the entire mess that was “AHS: Asylum.” The only interesting component was the set. The story was beyond absurd, beyond ridiculous and done in a paint by numbers way. I’d say it was a complete waste of film but instead I’ll just say a better use could be found for digital media.

  21. argyle1 says:

    love the show. brilliant acting, writing, directing, cinematography…attention all cast and crew – ignore reviews like this.

  22. Modesto says:

    You sound like you have a stick in your ass. I’ll give you that it may not be your cup of tea, but Christ.

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