×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘American Horror Story: Coven’

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

With:

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  

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  

More TV

  • Super Bowl LII - Tom Brady,

    Verizon Plans Multiple Ad Plays Leading to Super Bowl Commercial

    If Verizon gets its way, its Super Bowl advertising plans will include a 60-second commercial during the game – and a half-hour documentary that gives viewers even more of what will be discussed in the ad. The telecommunications giant is often scrutinized for the communications resources it provides its customers, but its Super Bowl campaign [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. “The images and stories recognized by the [...]

  • Naomi Watts

    Naomi Watts to Star in Jason Blum-Produced Quibi Series 'Wolves and Villagers' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Naomi Watts has been cast in the lead role in the upcoming Quibi series “Wolves and Villagers,” Variety has learned exclusively. The exact plot of the short-form series is being kept under wraps, but Quibi co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg has previously described the show as “Fatal Attraction 2.0.” Jason Blum is executive producing the series, with [...]

  • HBO's 'Breslin And Hamill' Documentary Drops

    HBO's 'Breslin And Hamill' Documentary Drops Trailer

    “Revolutionary,” “superstars,” “the voice of true New Yorkers” — that’s how Spike Lee and other influential figures describe journalists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in the trailer released for HBO’s “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” documentary. The film, which premieres Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, follows the two newspaper columnists whose dedication and wit [...]

  • Riverdale Chapter Twenty-Six

    TV News Roundup: 'Riverdale' Sets 'Heathers' Musical Episode

    In Thursday’s roundup, “Riverdale” is set to tackle “Heathers: The Musical,” and Freeform has announced its second annual summit. DATES  The musical episode of the CW’s “Riverdale,” featuring nine songs, will air Wednesday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. On the show, Riverdale High School takes on “Heathers: The Musical,” with queen bees Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content