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.