May 22, 2014

[TV Review] American Horror Story: Coven


I am a late-arrival fan to American Horror Story. I actually didn't start watching the show until Coven, the third season, was airing, and what won me over (I don't watch a lot of television, so I give shamefully few new series a chance) was actually the commercial/trailer embedded above. Between the eerie charm of the song and the visuals, it piqued my interest enough that I decided it was finally time to look into what the heck this American Horror Story thing was all about and determine whether or not it was any good.

American Horror Story is a whole mess of good.

As of today, there are three seasons released, with a fourth coming out this fall. These are, in order, Murder House, Asylum, Coven, and the upcoming Freak Show. I've seen all three available seasons, and I watched them in the "proper", so to speak, order--that is, I watched season one (Murder House), then season two (Asylum), and finally season three (Coven).

Murder House won me over almost immediately, and by the time I was finished with it, I knew that this AHS thing was a show I wanted to stick with. Murder House was pretty damn awesome, as far as television goes; well-written, well-acted, and above all else, very entertaining, it managed to make a fan out of me. I went into Asylum eagerly, and if Murder House was "pretty damn awesome", Asylum blew me the fuck away. It was a pile-up of villains and gambits, but it was done in a spectacular way; it was gross, gory, and verging on genuinely frightening; it was, again, well-written, well-acted, and kept me entertained throughout pretty much every twist and turn of the plot. Murder House made me an American Horror Story fan, but Asylum made it onto my list of best television seasons/arcs ever.

So, coming off of the bloody awesome that was Asylum, perhaps I expected too much of Coven. Whether or not that's the case, American Horror Story's third horror story left me very, very dissatisfied. It's not that it's a terrible story, exactly; Coven offers a lot of entertainment. If it were a standalone series, a spiritual successor to earlier feminist fantasy show like Buffy or Charmed, I would've been on board with it. But as a season of American Horror Story, which I expect to bring the full package of brilliant writing, brilliant casting, brilliant acting, etcetera, to the table... it was really disappointing.

Most importantly, the plot lacked the complexity that I'm looking for in a show. While other viewers might be looking for sympathetic characters, a certain tone, a certain morality, or other story elements to make or break a show for them, what appeals to me most is complexity. I want intricate plotting. I want a story that is going to leave me speechless with its intricacy, its foreshadowing, its scope, and its twists, and while Murder House and Asylum both satisfied me in that respect, Coven didn't. It fizzled. It introduced more than enough plot points to build the kind of story that I wanted it to tell, but the writing simply fizzled. Instead of taking everything they introduced and weaving it all together with expertise, the writers simply let threads drop, dangle, and disappear, deciding instead to focus on what I've seen called--both hilariously and quite fittingly--a mystery that boiled down to "America's Next Top Supreme". And frankly, by the end of the story, I didn't give a shit who became the next Supreme.

Perhaps this is mostly because--and this is your spoiler warning--the Supreme's identity was obvious. It's the kind of solution I expect from a teen mystery novel, not American Horror Story; whoever's the least foreshadowed but still possible candidate is the ultimate choice. Sarah Paulson's Cordelia was the Supreme, and the writers tried to keep it a secret by making sure none of the characters guessed it 'til the end, which made it obvious--at least to me--that she was going to be the one. Which, I will add, also annoys me by itself; I appreciate premise of American Horror Story--that is, keeping the same core cast and setting them up with new roles to play. Evan Peters, for example, plays Tate, a sort of antivillain in Murder House, and then plays Kit, one of the heroes of Asylum; I love that. But Coven didn't address that issue properly, either.

Most glaringly, Sarah Paulson's character, Lana Winters, was the protagonist of Aslyum. She had previously played a minor character, Billie Dean Howard, in Murder House, so I quite enjoyed seeing her play such a different character--the focal character, at that--in the next season. But she returns in Coven to play the protagonist again, with her character, Cordelia Foxx, getting to be the super special Supreme witch at the end, and it's actually kind of annoying. There's a lot of talent in the cast, and seeing the same actor get the pivotal role two seasons in a role... well, it irks.

But it's not only Paulson's character that came across as retreading previous American Horror Story territory. After Cordelia, the other two most primary characters could be argued to be Jessica Lange's Fiona Goode and Taissa Farmiga's Zoe Benson. Jessica Lange appeared in both Murder House and Asylum; in Murder House, she was an antagonist in the form of a wealthy, bitchy Southern queen bee, while in Asylum, she played a tragic villain who slowly morphs into an antihero. But in Coven, she's back to playing a wealthy, bitchy, queen bee antagonist. To make matters worse, both her Murder House and Coven characters have a pathetic, almost stalkerishly devoted suitor played by Denis O'Hare. It's like friggin' déjà vu.

Then, as I said, there's Taissa Farmiga's character. In Murder House, she plays Violet Harmon, an outcast teenager in a relationship with Tate, played by Evan Peters. She doesn't appear in Asylum, but she returns in Coven to play Zoe Benson, an outcast teenage witch in a relationship with Kyle, played by Evan Peters. It's like friggin' déjà vu.

Seriously, if I see Farmiga/Peters and Lange/O'Hare brewing again in Freak Show, I'm calling shenanigans--and that goes for Sarah Paulson and/or Taissa Farmiga as protagonist(s), too. Let someone else shine, guys.

My complaints don't end there, much as I wish they did; there's other, more minor stuff on my bitch list. Evan Peters' talent was wasted as Kyle. Zoe Benson was a fairly boring decoy protagonist. The Zoe/Kyle/Madison relationship was riddled with consent issues, making it one of the few cases in which I'm fairly grossed out by a canon trio. Most of the characters were unsympathetic, and that includes Cordelia, who was an irresponsible and self-absorbed excuse for a teacher or mentor to the young women in her care. And Zachary Quinto was nowhere to be found.

(That last one's mostly a joke, but, yeah, I missed him!)

But what bothered me the most was the plotting. In American Horror Story, I expect there to be a series of interlocking plotlines, and while this season had multiple threads, they came across as messy and stunted instead of artistic or even properly executed. There wasn't enough focus on the important subplots: Queenie's emotional trouble was mostly off-screen, the witch hunters came into play too late in the game to be significant players, and too much time was wasted on the teen romance. (I don't turn on American Horror Story to see romance, guys. I really don't.) The repercussions of Nan's murder of Joan should have been more significant, the conflict with the witch hunters should have been more pressing and dangerous, and Marie's broken deal should have been huge. Instead, everything seemed to be rushed and half-assed so the plot could focus on the Supreme mystery, with some points being forgotten entirely (Marie's stolen baby, Cordelia's fertility woes, etcetera). And the deaths--Nan's, Misty's, and Marie's in particular--were down disrespectful to the characters. Nan was essentially forgotten, Marie died offscreen in spite of being a pivotal character, and Misty's fate was extremely and unnecessarily cruel. When all was said and done, I couldn't shake the feeling like everything and everyone were shortchanged in favor of Cordelia, Zoe, Fiona, and the Supreme story.

All that said, there's still good here. The team-up between Marie and Fiona was awesome, and I wish it could have lasted. Lily Rabe and Frances Conroy were as spectacular as ever, and both Angela Basset and Kathy Bates were clearly having a ton of fun with their characters. As I said, if this wasn't an American Horror Story season--if it was instead the premiere season of a new, Charmed-style witch show--I wouldn't be so critical. But Murder House and Asylum were spectacular television; I know what American Horror Story is capable of, and it dropped the ball with Coven.

So what's the word on Freak Show? Me, I'll be watching, but after hearing that it's slated to be written in a similar tone to Coven, I'm not getting my hopes up. If Freak Show follows in the footsteps of season three instead of one or two, I expect it'll be my last season. But I'm going to hold out hope that Coven was just a fluke, not a shark jump. Season four could surprise me, after all.

Most importantly, I'd like to see the writing return to its earlier standards. No more puttering through a story as if lost; write with conviction, damn it! Know the twists and turns before the thing goes to air, please? Let Peters play a straight villain, which he hasn't done before, and let Jessica Lange play a straight hero. Let Alexandra Breckenridge play someone besides "the other woman". Write a genuinely loving mother; with the exception of Grace, who died when her son was a toddler, all the mothers on the show so far have been some degree of abusive or neglectful. (Constance, Fiona, and Delphine were abusive to their children. Vivien was emotionally neglectful. Hayden was an unhinged stalker who tried to use her unborn child as blackmail. Nora didn't seem to have much interest in her son until his death. Lana kills her son while he's unarmed and sobbing in her embrace. "Anne Frank" couldn't connect with her baby until her lobotomy--though hers is justified by a case of postpartum disorder. Alma murders the other female member of her ménage à trois and never sees her child again. Marie ritually sacrificed her infant and plenty of others. Joan murdered her son to keep him quiet. Kyle's mother sexually abused him. To sum up, mothers in American Horror Story suck.) Give Lily Rabe and Frances Conroy more screen time; they're both fucking awesome actresses.

...and for the love of horror, bring Zachary Quinto back.