American Horror Story: Coven

The third season demonstrates once again that great TV doesn’t have to be self-serious.

FX's American Horror Story: Coven
A still from American Horror Story: Coven

Courtesy of FX Network

Over American Horror Story’s two invigorating, gruesome seasons, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have indicated that there is no subject too distasteful for them to tackle. In last year’s installment of the anthology series, American Horror Story: Asylum, the pair took on insanity, nuns, aliens, possession, medical experimentation, religious hypocrisy, homosexual aversion therapy, serial killers, the devil, and abortion. For good measure, they threw in the Holocaust in a bravura two-episode stand featuring an inmate who believed she was Anne Frank. But even this past boldness does not quite prepare one for the opening segment of the new season, titled American Horror Story: Coven. Forget the serpents in the show’s promotional materials; Coven begins with America’s preeminent horror story: slavery.

Coven opens in 1834 New Orleans, with a vicious Kathy Bates playing Madame LaLaurie, a scheming society woman who delights in dreaming up new ways to torture her slaves. Early on, she daubs blood, sourced from human pancreas, on her face like Noxzema. In her attic, she gruesomely tortures men she keeps in cages: The camera shows us a man whose face is all but peeled off, another whose mouth has been sewed around a mouthful of excrement, and another who’s been made into a minotaur. The opening credits, reliably TV’s creepiest, are dominated this season by images of the Klan.

I watched most of this opening segment through my fingers, but as dark and disturbing as it is, it is also undeniably over the top. The music pounds; candlelight glistens on dark skin; Bates purrs, “The minotaur was always my favorite, half man, half bull. And now I have one of my very own!” American Horror Story does not believe in sacred cows: Here it is, taking on slavery by using an actual ripped-up a cow as a prop. This treatment of the subject matter is undeniably disrespectful. But respectfulness is not Murphy and Falchuk’s primary concern, and it is exactly this brazenness that I admire. In the context of other television, American Horror Story is perverse and refreshing, proof that a great show doesn’t have to be self-serious to be smart.

American Horror Story is, proudly, a melodrama. Its influences are not other golden age TV shows and gangster movies, but undervalued genres, often dismissed as pulp: horror flicks, women’s pictures, soaps, camp. American Horror Story is obviously ambitious, but it is rarely somber or sober. Like Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, AHS is a different kind of quality television: ambitious, bitchy, frisky, entertaining as all-get-out, and unabashed by TV’s schlockier roots. With its energy and verve, and its total disinterest in white guy anti-heroes, it’s more watchable than dozens of Sopranos knock-offs. It’s also far more bold—free to investigate subjects and themes shows bound by good taste are too hamstrung to take on.

If you’re worried that slavery was the only sensitive subject the premiere explores, rest easy: Once the show moves to the present day it delivers Steubenville: The Revenge Fantasy. Taissa Farmiga, who sat out last season, plays Zoe Benson, a young woman who learns she is a witch almost exactly at the moment she learns her genitals are a kind of vagina dentata: Her lady parts don’t have teeth, but when she has sex with a man, she turns his brain into a leaking punch bowl. Zoe is shuttled off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans, a school for burgeoning witches that was once home to dozens of young women, but now houses just three. There is telekinetic mean girl and movie star Madison (Emma Roberts), human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and the clairvoyant Nan (Jaime Brewer, who has Down syndrome). The young witches study under the supervision of the circumspect Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson, coming off an incredible performance in Asylum), who believes the girls should be able to blend in. She doesn’t interfere when Zoe and Madison head off to a frat party, where a video-taped gang-rape occurs. Lesson: Don’t gang-rape a witch.

Into this charged situation swans Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode, who is the Supreme, the most powerful witch of her generation. Last season was, in Murphy’s own words, “dark and grim and hard” and Coven is expressly designed to be more fun: As Goode, Lange gets to flounce around, sucking the life out of handsome gentlemen, dropping bitchy bon mots, and generally showing the younger witches—and actresses—how it’s done. As the episode ends, she encounters Madame LaLaurie, ensuring that, whatever else happens in the new season, Bates and Lange will be chewing scenery together.

In American Horror Story’s first season, Lange played a psycho Southern belle, stuck in Southern California. Her new character bears no relation, but Fiona, lolling around New Orleans with her impeccable umbrella, calls her to mind anyway. Similarly, when Fiona started to sing, I immediately thought of the most memorable scene from last season, when Lange’s Sister Jude sang “The Name Game.” The anthology and repertory aspects of American Horror Story, in which actors play wildly different parts season to season, is paying dividends: Past characters and storyline have started to rustle and rub up against present ones. When Farmiga’s Zoe lays eyes on Kyle Spencer (Evan Peters) at the frat party, you know they’ll love each other, like they did in Season 1. The grossly disfigured slaves recall the human experiments performed by last year’s psycho Nazi doctor. With all these eerie echoes, the show is starting to haunt itself.