I have never liked Ryan Murphy. He is his own worst enemy, creating promising shows with decent beginnings before losing his damn mind and sinking the shows into unmatchable tripe (coughGleecough). Despite this though, I held out some hope for American Horror Story: Coven. While I had never seen an episode of the show, I adored the idea of each season as a separate miniseries with an overarching company of recurring actors for a sense of continuity. Plus, I found the idea of a “witch-based” story interesting and thought I’d give last night’s premiere a shot. And you know what, I’ll give Mr. Murphy credit; at least he had the decency to fail horribly from the very beginning as opposed to buttering me up, getting me hooked, and more painfully disappointing me in the long run.
Told with all the subtlety and pacing of an ADHD auctioneer, American Horror Story: Coven‘s premiere “Bitchcraft” tells the story of Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga): an adolescent girl who discovers she’s a witch when her boyfriend suffers a “brain aneurysm” when they have sex for the first time. Carted off by random guys who seem to have walked off the Men In Black 3 set, she finds herself in New Orleans, where there’s a boarding school for witches (run by Sarah Paulson of Martha Marcy May Marlene) and where very few people possess southern accents apparently. We soon learn that things work like a TV/MA rated, seemingly feminist edition of Harry Potter minus Ralph Fiennes. There’s a secret community of witches, they’ve sectioned themselves off for fear of prosecution, and there’s even a prophetic figure called “The Supreme” who is the most powerful and leading figure in the witching community. This generation’s Supreme is the sadistic youth-obsessed Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), who returns to the boarding school in order to take charge from Sarah Paulson’s character (her daughter) and whip the young witches into realizing their fullest potential.
Right off the bat I hate the opening credit sequence, though not for any lack of quality. On the contrary, the moody atmosphere and frightening imagery is wickedly deceptive in that it leads one to believe that this episode isn’t shot like an irritating homage to Battlefield Earth. After all, what quality horror story is complete without the confusingly diagonal framing and inability to keep the camera STILL once in a while that made Battlefield Earth such a beloved classic of cinema? Now sure some of the shots can look somewhat cool, but they’re too often so frenetically stitched together that it feels more akin to experiencing an epileptic seizure while trapped in vertigo.
Now this wouldn’t matter so much if we had a decent story to hook into and a main character to draw us in. Unfortunately, this premiere has neither of those things. Rushing through various plot points and world exposition at an alarmingly break-neck speed while saddling us with a bland lead character who makes Harry Potter seem like Walter White from Breaking Bad. Hell, even the one-dimensional “school-mates” of hers (played by Emma Roberts, Jamie Brewer, and Gabourey Sidibe) manage to at least be halfway engaging with their fairly standard yet cool looking powers of telekinesis, voodoo, and so on. But no, it’s just wide-eyed stares and occasional half-baked voice-overs as a substitute for any real personality.
Speaking of personality, I must admit that the episode has a certain amount of it in the forms of Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, who both play domineering women of power desperately searching for the means to prolong their youth. Lange especially possesses a magnetic resonance that draws you in without playing too much into theatrics. She’s cruel, abusive, and relishes every second of it, fearing only her own mortality but doggedly pursuing to conquer that weakness with an almost admirable level of confidence. Bates is a little less entertaining and somewhat sparse by comparison, but she possesses a comparable level of zest for power and sadism (albeit with more gruesome demonstrations) that make her a delight to watch on-screen.
Sadly though, even those two great actresses come a bit too little and a bit too late to save this mess of a premiere. It’s sloppy, rushed, and dilutes any real substance with consistent blandness and unnecessarily schlocky sensationalism, particularly in the last third where things descend to a whole new level of stupid. I admit however that American Horror Story: Coven is scary and inspiring in one aspect. It demonstrates how one doesn’t need to possess any talent in (or knowledge of) horror in order to get your own horror show made. After all, Ryan Murphy certainly has neither and look how successful and overrated he is!