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American Horror Story

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Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

There’s no watching American Horror Story without swallowing the bullshit heaped upon Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s creep show buffet. Getting to the heart of the anthology series’ first season—retroactively subtitled Murder House—meant dealing with liberal doses of shocks for shock’s sake and endless scenes of Dylan McDermott screaming his feelings. Increased creative input from Joss Whedon regular Tim Minear helped American Horror Story: Asylum blunt the effects of Murphy’s typical shtick, leading to an improved sophomore season that was nonetheless hampered by some ham-fisted social commentary and further bald-faced appeals to the provocative. (Murder Santa, anyone?) Yet, scrape the plate clean and there are moments of genuine inventiveness buried beneath American Horror Story’s empty grotesqueries and disdain for narrative convention: The genuine surprise at the end of “Smoldering Children,” the hyperstylized funhouse of “I Am Anne Frank, Part 2,” or the uncut camp giddiness of the titular sequence in “The Name Game.”

Fortunately, the first hour of American Horror Story: Coven mostly cuts the crap. There’s no suspension of disbelief required of “Bitchcraft” because the episode itself doesn’t traffic in disbelief. It zooms off the handle from frame one, a cold open starring Kathy Bates as a wild-eyed Southern matriarch whose connection to the main story isn’t clear until the episode’s final act. And there’s no hemming and hawing about the strange fate that befalls the young beau of season-three protagonist Taissa Farmiga: Witches are real—and Farmiga is one of them. Pushing that denial aside (a lesson the similarly themed Witches Of East End would do well to heed), Coven is instead driven by Farmiga and her classmates at Miss Robichaux’s Academy For Exceptional Young Ladies learning to harness their powers so that their dying breed can continuing folding itself into polite society.

Or not, what with Jessica Lange around to ham it up as the Voldemort to Sarah Paulson’s finishing-school Dumbledore, strutting in and out of frame as a dark mark on the immaculate surfaces of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s camera setups. Just as there’s no attempt at blurring the line between fantasy and reality in “Bitchcraft,” there’s little question as to who’s the good witch and who’s the bad witch in this scenario: Ever clad in shades of black, Lange evidently relishes her return to American Horror Story’s queen bitch throne. She doesn’t leave behind much scenery to be gnawed by her young charges—save for an eventful display of powers around the dinner table, there’s not much space for their personalities anyway.

“Bitchcraft” moves so fast, in fact, that it takes a while for it to sink in that there are so many female presences on the screen. The premiere aces the Bechdel test; most of the men who wander into frame either start out mute or end up dead. It’s as if Coven is a perverse, supernatural corrective for the premature death of Bunheads, another imperfect show about a mother figure teaching young women to be their true selves through an ancient craft. Still, the guiding hands behind the episode belong to three men: Gomez-Rejon directs from a script by Murphy and Falchuk. And for all it has to say about the true nature of power and who yields it, Coven is being broadcast by a network that must make appeals to its heavily male audience, hence that regretful promo poster that doesn’t just indulge in phallic imagery—it shoves it down three disembodied throats.

Yet it’s still important to note who on the show has the power of resurrection, who is allowed to overturn heavy machinery with a flick of the wrist, and who is portrayed as a sadist whose obsession with ancient gods and mystical creatures leads her to sew a bull’s head onto a man’s body. (Two out of three ain’t bad?) Contradiction is just another quality American Horror Story asks its viewers to stomach. It’s the series’ most straightforward season opener, but “Bitchcraft” is rife with the inconsistencies, indulgences (Gomez-Rejon pulls one especially audacious fisheye loop-de-loop late in the game), and indiscretions of its predecessors. In other words: the bullshit. 

There’s the racial component of Coven to contend with as well, which the show’s camp sensibilities aren’t equipped to handle with the proper levels of sensitivity. (It’s far more Django Unchained than 12 Years A Slave.) Of course, American Horror Story has as much use for propriety and sensitivity as it does for real-world logic. This is a show about viewing the American experience through the lens of creature features and slasher flicks—Horror Story is only a few syllables away from “history,” after all. That experience involves reconciling a couple centuries of heinous acts with an equal number of good deeds. The central, cracked genius of the show involves a recognition of these facts accompanied by a challenge to accept all the wild, wooly ideas Murphy, Falchuk, and team are willing to toss at the screen. Sometimes you just have to go with American Horror Story, even if it hurts your soul to be entertained by such heedless provocation. And “Bitchcraft” doesn’t wait for viewers to accept that invitation—it just goes.

Created by: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Starring: Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Evan Peters
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX
Format: Hour-long horror anthology
One episode watched for review

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