“American Horror Story” is a fantastic name for a show. Unfortunately, it’s no longer an accurate description of American Horror Story.
The anthology series’ third installment, subtitled Coven, premiered last night, introducing audiences to a jam-packed ensemble cast of both familiar faces (God, we missed Jessica Lange) and brand-new players (holy shit, is that Angela Bassett?). This season’s topic of choice is, unsurprisingly, witches—lots of ’em, cooped up in a New Orleans mansion disguised as a girls’ boarding school.
Fortunately, any comparisons to Hogwarts are shot down by a single withering comment from Fiona, the near-omnipotent “supreme” witch played by Lange with appropriately HBIC vibes. And given that Taissa Farmiga’s magical “gift” is the ability to give any man she has sex with a fatal brain aneurysm, it’s not hard for showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchiuk to prove she’s no Hermione Granger.
The rest of the premiere continues to barrel over the line between “off the rails” and “completely batshit” in a breathless rush that screams “I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of network Dodge after spending half a decade on Glee.” Frances Conroy spends a glorious two minutes cosplaying Grace Coddington; Gabourey Sidibe sticks herself in the hand with a fork before revealing she’s a “human voodoo doll”; Emma Roberts flips over a bus full of frat bros with her brain. But as hard as it is to believe that an episode of television that oversaturated could actually be missing anything, one factor’s conspicuously absent from American Horror Story: horror.
AHS has always been campy. In fact, camp is arguably the series’ defining trait, meaning even cartoonish touches like unnecessary camera tilts and gratuitous slo-mo aren’t what makes this season so lacking in scare. Rather, Coven doesn’t seem to be even attempting to freak out its audience, or at least not in the something-just-went-bump-in-the-night sense. (Watching Farmiga work her, um, magic is definitely pretty freaky.)
Its protagonists may be witches, but Coven is the first iteration of American Horror Story that strays from the show’s typical MO of playing on genre tropes. Season one was a classic haunted house story, following a living family and the small army of ghosts that preyed on them. Season two attempted to pick up the pace, throwing cliché after cliché at the wall and watching to see what stuck. After 13 episodes of demon possessions, mutant zombies, serial killers, alien abductions, and murder Santas, the answer was apparently “too much.”
But unlike its predecessors, Coven doesn’t have the suspense of a mysterious murder-suicide or the creep factor of an abandoned insane asylum hanging over its head. Instead, it’s the straightforward story of a bunch of powerful women living in a giant mansion together. By the end of the first episode, we know that witches exist; we even know which ones are evil and who has what powers. If the premiere is any indication, the rest of the season is going to be less about scaring, or even surprising, the audience and more about the insanity that goes down when you put Bassett and Lange in the same room.
It’s a little disconcerting for a show with a title like American Horror Story to depart so dramatically from form. Yet Coven may also be a sign that the series’ maximalism is a blessing in disguise. Last season busted through practically every horror plot in the book, leaving Murphy and Falchiuk with little choice but to move beyond the genre that gave their brainchild its name. American Horror Story is now free to do whatever the hell it wants, with whatever characters it wants, in whatever way it wants. Not exactly a tall order for a show that once had a ghost in a bondange suit impregnate Connie Britton.