With so many of the fall’s new TV shows proving to be crushing disappointments, it’s a relief to have at least one returning series still worth getting excited about. ‘American Horror Story’ returned on Wednesday for its third season of mind-bending insanity. A new year brings a new setting and an all-new storyline. This one’s subtitled ‘Coven’, and it may just have the potential to be the show’s best yet.
From the title, it should be clear that this year’s story is about witches. The primary setting is modern-day New Orleans, where a young girl named Zoe (returning Season 1 star Taissa Farmiga) has been shipped off to boarding school at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies after accidentally killing her boyfriend while in the process of losing her virginity to him. Previously unbeknownst to her, Zoe comes from a long line of witches, and suffers an unfortunate curse whereby any attempt to have sex will cause the other party’s brain to explode. As far as witchy powers go, that one kind of sucks, but don’t be surprised when it comes back around in fun ways.
The Academy is really a front for a small coven, where kindly headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) plays Professor X to these mutants, and attempts to teach young witches how to control their powers and function safely in normal society without exposing themselves. At one time a thriving institution, the school has dwindled down to just four students – including Zoe. The others are bitchy mean girl Madison (Emma Roberts) who has telekinetic powers, “human voodoo doll” Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer, also back from Season 1).
Before Zoe can get too settled, the balance of power at the school shifts with the arrival of Fiona (the great Jessica Lange), a so-called “Supreme” witch (as well as Cordelia’s mother), who insists on taking over as a professor. As we learned in earlier scenes, Fiona is kind of a mess – vain, arrogant, homicidal, and obsessed with regaining her lost youth. Needless to say, she and her uptight daughter have very different ideas about how to be proper role models for young ladies.
At Madison’s prompting, Zoe tags along to a frat party, where she meets a kind of reckless but kind of cute guy named Kyle (Evan Peters, whom you’ll recognize from both prior seasons). They make a quick connection. Unfortunately, while these two are busy flirting, some of Kyle’s asshole frat brothers roofie and gang rape Madison. Kyle discovers this too late to stop them, and gets beaten up for even trying. Madison comes to just as the whole group of boys speed off in a bus, which she uses her powers to flip over, killing most of them – including Kyle.
Two frat boys survive the crash, one of whom was the lead rapist. When Zoe realizes that he lived while Kyle died, she visits him in the hospital and decides to take revenge using her own special power, by literally fucking him to death until his head bursts. Yes, ‘American Horror Story’ has never shied away from bringing the crazy.
In a flashback side story, we learn about Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a crazed 19th Century society lady whose reign of terror torturing and mutilating slaves to use their organs in a youth serum concoction came to an end when she was poisoned by a voodoo priestess (Angela Bassett). For those of you keeping count, the show now has two Oscar winners and two more Oscar nominees in the current cast. As the episode ends, Fiona digs up a casket, in which she finds a bound and gagged Mme. LaLaurie still quite alive nearly two centuries later. Fiona offers to buy her a drink.
The premiere episode (amusingly, if predictably, titled ‘Bitchcraft’) has all the classic ‘American Horror Story’ elements, chief among them a gleefully sadistic dark humor. The new setting and storyline have a lot of potential, and I think it’s a nice touch to see Season 1 cast members come back around. Jessica Lange is, as always, hugely entertaining in her role. The actress fearlessly commits to her characters on this show, and really elevates what might otherwise be silly material. The series also appears to have learned some lessons from the stumbles of Season 2, which dove too quickly into full-throttle nuttiness with no grounding. This premiere has a much better build-up, with care taken to let us develop sympathy for Zoe as a lead character, and doles out its lunacy in nicely measured doses.
I think it was a brilliant decision to structure this show as an anthology with a whole new story every season. That allows it to stay fresh and rejuvenate itself every year. I also appreciate that ‘American Horror Story’ is a rare genre program dominated primarily by powerful women. You just don’t see that enough.
I like it. I’m excited to see more. Bring on the witches!