Wednesday, October 9, 2013

'American Horror Story: Coven' Preview

BY KARL PFEIFFER

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us! Crisp blue skies, autumn leaves, grinning pumpkins, and another season of "American Horror Story."

I make no hiding of the fact that I think "American Horror Story" is one of the most brilliant shows on television right now. What makes "AHS" so unique and smart is that it's ultra-stylized, its social-awareness is razor sharp, and it's not afraid to dig around in the dirt.

Despite strong ratings (Seasons One and Two stayed solid at three million viewers, dipping occasionally into two million), the show can be divisive amongst fans. Why? Horror breeds division. The biggest challenge that the show faces is that what scares some people doesn't scare others. Some people find "American Horror Story"'s drifting camera-angles and quick-cuts, the jarring gore and the oh-hey-there-sex-scenes, to be just what the doctor ordered. Other people see right through them.

You can't please everybody.

But I will say that what makes "American Horror Story" brilliant isn't whether or not it's scary, but the work it does within the extremes that the horror genre allows. The show examines the darker places in American society through the paragons of American Horror cinema.

The real horror in "AHS" isn't the monsters under the bed, the ghosts, or the witches: it's adultery, it's school-shootings, it's murder, it's racism, sexism, homophobia, rape. The horror tropes are only symbols of these issues. Thought the aliens were a bit out of place in Asylum? Try examining them as stand-ins for God. Look at the dichotomy between their (eventually revealed) positive use of technology as compared to the dark use of technology that we saw from James Cromwell's Golden-Globe-Winning portrayal of Nazi sadist Dr. Arden in Season Two. Look for binary differences between good and evil in religion, in science, in social norms, in journalism. Watch for where the ethical gray areas first blur, then are turned on their heads.

That's where "American Horror Story" shines. The first season, "Murder House," took some getting used to stylistically. But it was a powerhouse. "Asylum" faltered as they tried to cram what seemed like too-much too-fast in their 13-episode run, but it resolved itself splendidly, with each horror-trope operating, in the end, for a very specific thematic reason.

What do we have to expect from "Coven" Wednesday night? So much.

Thematically, we've got another canvas ripe with potential. Witches, minorities, religious persecution, slavery, racism, incest, and more mother-daughter dynamics. The fact that early interviews and teaser-info is already openly discussing the thematic nature of the show indicates a strong and positive direction that's only building on what the show does best.

My only worries? The lighter tone of the third season. Though I'm one to avoid any promos with actual show-footage, I've seen enough to already detect the lighter nature of the season. Showrunner Ryan Murphy hasn't hesitated in revealing this to be a far lighter season than Asylum. "It's much more buoyant and comedic and crafty than last season." The CW's "Supernatural" went with a lighter feel for their third season as well, losing much of the dark, angsty lighting in favor of cheery CW colors, to divided opinion amongst fans who noticed.

But worry not. The promos -- oftentimes my favorite part of the show -- are provocative, brooding, and everything I want from my "Horror Story." And we're going to have classic "American Horror Story" goodies too. From Kathy Bates' portrayal of the heinous killer Madame LaLaurie to more Jessica Lange, and everything in between, I'm not scared.

Well, not yet.

The premiere episode, "Bitchwork," sets us up for the season: A young girl discovering that she's a little different because of a bloodline connection to Salem (read synopses for the first three eps this season). She's whisked to a special school in New Orleans, where old rivalries are reignited between the Salem witches and the Voodoo.

I wouldn't worry about the Harry-Potter-esque feel of the premise, either. "American Horror Story" is known for taking popular conventions and turning them on their heads.

Besides, given "Horror Story"'s pension for the sexy, it's unlikely any broomstick riding is going to be on the Quidditch pitch.

"American Horror Story: Coven" premieres Wednesday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX.

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