Critics’ Roundtable: “American Horror Story: Coven”

 
 

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American Horror Story Coven

Double, double, toil and trouble…Fire burn, and caldron bubble…

We’ve been fascinated with witches since even before Shakespeare put three of them in Macbeth, but it seems these days anything with a supernatural slant will catch our attention, which makes the current season of American Horror Story: Coven a welcome stop in the AHS train of crazy.

In Coven, we focus on a New Orleans school for witches but with the voodoo rivals ever present, things are much more exciting than just reading textbooks and studying for tests. As expected, Coven, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, has brought the shocking, the weird, the grotesque as well as jaw-dropping performances by some of the best actors out there today.

Many of the faces from previous AHS seasons are on hand–Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe–as well as new members of the cast including Emma Roberts, Angela Bassett, Gabourey Sidibe, Danny Huston, Kathy Bates and Denis O’Hare.

And did we forget to mention songstress Stevie Nicks?

Is AHS making the best use of its glorious cast? We talked to some top TV critics who weighed in on this third season of AHS to see if it’s falling behind, surpassing or breaking even with the previous two seasons (Murder House and Asylum). This time around we have Scott Huver, LA Film & TV Correspondent, NBC National Entertainment), Elaine Atwell (contributor for AfterEllen), Liane Bonin Starr (Senior Editor, HitFix.com) and TheBacklot’s Brian Juergens, who brings his wit to TheBacklot’s weekly American Horror Story recaps. (Read the AfterEllen AHS: Coven recaps here.)

Jessica Lange American Horror Story
Ladies and Gentlemen…Jessica Lange.

Compared to the previous two seasons, how does Coven compare??

Scott Huver: Opposed to other seasons, Coven has taken more time when it comes to revealing the bigger picture at play–and that’s largely been a good thing. Ryan Murphy and company seem to be having a blast creating ripe scenarios for this season’s excellent ensemble to dig into, and only now have the plot threads started to really come together to suggest the larger storyline tapestry. It’s been unraveling at a more deliberate pace than before, with lots of juicy side-roads being explored along the way. It does lack a bit of the pathos of Season One and the engrossing narrative of Season Two, but it’s still an entertaining beast on its own.

Liane Bonin Starr: While each season stands alone, at this point in the series we’re starting to see that certain ideas and themes are being repeated, if not flogged to deathand for that reason, I think Coven doesn’t quite measure up to Seasons One or Two. There’s still time left in the season, however, so there’s a chance that a bang-up finale will change my mind. But on an over-the-top show like this one, a “been there, done that” reaction is deadly.

Brian Juergens: Comparing seasons of AHS is like comparing Baldwin brothersyou’re really just dealing with different shades of the same genetic lunacy. (And they’re all dreamy!) But I think that this season’s lighter tone and fashion-mag aesthetic are a nice contrast to Asylum’s bullet-train into darkness and Murder House’s claustrophobic puzzlebox approach. Coven‘s not remotely scary or even creepy (which both prior seasons managed to deliver every now and again), but it’s having so much fun throwing everything it can at us that it’s hard not to get swept up in its enthusiasm. Plus, minotaur sex.

Elaine Atwell: OK, confession: I have only seen a few episodes of Season One, because I found it too scary.  I mean that as a compliment; Murder House tapped into some disturbing and potent themes. Just, you know, too potent for me.  Asylum was the first season I wrote about, and with the exception of a few episodes, I thought it was a disaster. It suffered from a lot of the problems that plague Glee: wildly inconsistent characters, dozens of unconnected and never resolved plot threads, and a willfully offensive attitude about subjects that require some sensitivity.  So far, Coven falls somewhere in the middle.  I don’t dread watching it out of terror, but I don’t dread watching it out of a certainty that it will be drearily awful either.  AHS Coven: I Don’t Dread Watching It.

Denis O'HareIs there anything that Denis O’Hare can’t do?  (I think NO!)

Does the show do a good job of truly dealing with social issues (for ex., race with Gabourey Sidibe/Kathy Bates) or does it justify a lot of the crazy?

Scott Huver: Social themes have taken a back seat to character dynamics in Season Three, and it’s provided a nice change of pace from other seasons that may have had more to “say.” It’s been a treat to watch these fine, powerful actresses of different generation go toe-to-toe, and any broader-scale social overtones have been a nice, tidy way to allow for these characters to be at odds.

Liane Bonin Starr: Often the inclusion of social issues seems heavy-handed and not entirely in keeping with character. Queenie’s relationship with Madame LaLaurie is a good exampleQueenie’s rejection of the friendship after talking to Marie Laveau was logical, yes, but we didn’t see much of a struggle within Queenie before she flipped. As for Madame LaLaurie grappling with racism, that development also seemed like a light switch being turned off and ontoo abrupt and more a function of plot instead of character. Even Fiona’s righteous indignation about LaLaurie’s racism seemed out of sync with her self-absorption.

Brian Juergens: It’s a mixed bagwhile in Murder House and Asylum I thought that American horrors were woven fairly well into the core story (school shootings, infidelity, LGBT persecution), this season’s attempts have been a little less successful. I think snapshots of our country’s shameful racial history have been played quite effectively (with the little boy who was lynched, for example) but up to this point they’ve been isolated moments of anguish that haven’t been tied back to what’s happening in America today. And the fact that the show spends a lot of time drumming up undue sympathy for some extremely evil white women while the black girls are left hissing one-liners in the back of a beauty shop leaves me a little uncomfortablehopefully they’ll remedy that by the end of the season. But to some extent I feel like they might actually be holding back this season on the social issues in order to maintain the lighter tone. And that’s finesometimes horror’s just about stylized lighting and glorious carnage.

Elaine Atwell: One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Coven has been the war between Witches and Voodoo, over the fact that the Witches learned most of what they know from a West African slave, but then refused to share any of the power or the credit.  It’s time for a long-overdue discussion about cultural appropriation, and AHS is the only show I see taking that issue on. That being said, I still cringe a bit at the Delphine/Queenie friendship.  It sounds like a bizarre buddy-cop movie: a tough, black, chicken shack manager and a horrifically racist former slave-torturer form an unlikely bond over the fact that they are both fat.

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