American Horror Story: Coven: TV Review

No grotesquerie or campy stone is left unturned, but the show puts its signature spell on the gothic material. 

Weaving together the past and present, "Coven" focuses on old grudges, new powers and a frightening fear of aging.

Horror is back, wrapped in a gothic cloak woven with camp. Coven, American Horror Story's third installment of its anthology, focuses on witches, who are having something of a television revival. Like Lifetime's current Witches of East End, Coven frames itself around the story of a young witch who has just discovered her powers; but unlike that former show, here the new witch must be immediately shipped off to a special school to hone her, well, craft. Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies is no Hogwarts, though, and things get naked and bloody faster than you can say "pentagram."

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While many of American Horror Story's former castmembers have returned (including Sarah Paulson as the head of the academy and Jessica Lange as her mother, the most powerful witch of her generation), there's a healthy dose of new blood. Four girls populate the academy at present, each with a unique gift (witches are a dying breed, we're told -- the gene mutation is one many families chose to extinguish): Zoe (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera) pulls a Lady Mary Crawley and can sex a man to death; Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a bitchy movie star, is a powerful telekinetic; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a human voodoo doll; Nan (Jamie Brewer, who also appeared in the original American Horror Story) is clairvoyant.

Coven starts off in 1834 New Orleans where Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) creatively mutilates and tortures her slaves in a dungeon under her house, and enjoys painting her face with a bloody pancreas poultice to make her young and attractive for her husband. But her evil ways are soon punished by a local practitioner of voodoo Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who feeds her a poison disguised as an anti-aging concoction. Thus, a war between witches and voodoo begins (this in addition to the war between witches and regular witch-haters, of course). 

The desire to stay young spills over into the present-day story, where Fiona Good (Lange) has a devoted interest in stem cells to keep her from aging. The whole thing feels like a very extreme Oil of Olay commercial: "Are you tired of draining slaves of blood so your mother can look younger? Try stem cells!" Does a show that focuses on women have to boil down to shallow desires regarding wrinkle reduction, though? 

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The rest of the episode is filmed (by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) more like a fever dream. Fish-eye lenses and rotating cameras don't feel at home here as in other installments, and things aren't creepy so much as grotesque. Still, there are a number of decent effects and a healthy dose of humor that keep things moving along in an entertaining way. Eventually, the many stories find their way together, which helps propel the premiere to its promising finish. Perhaps the most interesting angle about the witches' future though is how Fiona tells the girls that coming out of the shadows is their best course of action, since any magical transgression they let loose will instantly be shared and made viral. The statement "there are no shadows anymore" might have been the scariest (and truest) thing uttered on Coven so far.

Those who have never tuned in to any other of American Horror Story's miniseries before will not be missing out on backstory -- each incarnation is contained. But Coven has a lot of supernatural, not to mention witch-related, competitors on cable, broadcast and premium networks to contend with. Whether or not it can ultimately distinguish itself for new viewers as being more gothic than Witches of East End, creepier and more humorous than Sleepy Hollow, or sexier than True Blood is not something that's evident yet, but longtime fans of the series should be content with it for casting a spell over the new story with its old, distinctive style.