Thursday, October 10, 2013

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'Bitchcraft'


As for the premiere of the third season of "American Horror Story"? A show with two solid seasons under its belt, both as a thematic and stylistic powerhouse, and a premiere episode entitled "Bitchcraft"?

Expectations exceeded.

The season premiere of "Coven" not only introduced us to Zoe, a "gifted" young girl with a remarkable and terrifying secret, as has been publicized for weeks, but also a witchy New Orleans school one part terrifyingly sexy, one part home for a hodgepodge of misfits. We get an idea of Jessica Lange's new fixations: How being head "Supreme" can go to her head as she instates herself in charge of this slim coven. We're dosed with rapid-fire flashbacks to the state of witchcraft in a post-Salem and New Orleans America. As well as another star-crossed relationship between Zoe and frat-boy Kyle (reuniting Evan Peters with first season's Taissa Farmiga). And we get a host of young witches, each with their own issues to work through.

Though the promos teased an emphasis on mother-daughter relationships, racial tensions, the state of witchcraft in America, minorities, and religious persecution, the premiere set the tone for a few other thematic tomes ripe with potential.

Watch this year for more gender dynamics. Where the plot is yet to dig into the Voodoo v. Salem tension, we've already seen the ladies' coven pitted against a coven of a more modern variety: frat boys. After Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) is sexually assaulted by many of the boys, we start to see the gender hierarchies again making a play, continuing the previous season's emphasis. Leave it to "American Horror Story" to dish out the befitting punishment to the frat's more malicious ringleader by literally f---ing him to death. If last season's Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) didn't give you enough girl power, get ready for this one.

But "AHS" has never been known to play favorites. Keep another eye on the ways the show will play with women's desires to remain youthful and beautiful, enacted by the "Supreme," Fiona Goode, who's taking desperate strides toward drugs to maintain her youth, alongside Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who, in a move straight out of a King novel (befittingly), powders her nose with the blood of slaves.

We touch briefly on genetic testing and the once hot-button issue of stem-cell research. But I'm more interested to see them explore the parallels between animal testing and LaLaurie's twisted zoomorphism of her black slaves. On that note too, the overt nods to Greek myth and the story of the Minotaur have to show up later. How they blend Greek myth into a African/Southern U.S./Creole setting should be curious.

What else am I loving?

Beside the themes, I have to love the stylistic technique. It's classic "American Horror Story" cinematography. The at-times-overbearing wacky-Dutch-angle shots are balanced beautifully with symmetry and an eye toward composition. (Just don't go too nuts, guys. Gravity gave me enough motion-sickness this week).

The musical work is excellent. From the eerie choral coven theme to the synthesized beats (echoing "Asylum"'s alien's EDM score), it's a sexy soundtrack.

And it's so refreshing to get out of the soundstage feel of Season Two's "Asylum." I know they were going for claustrophobic, but there's a point when the fake feel became distracting. Here, we've got the gorgeous canvas of New Orleans to keep our feet on the ground.

My only worries?

So early on, it's hard to gripe about much. I always prefer to let the showrunners get their feet under them.

That said, my worry going in was the quirkiness and the overall lighter feel. And so far, I have to say that the quirks were balanced well with the eerie (demonstrated excellently upon Zoe's entrance to the boarding school). Despite early promo shots of Lange and her oddball crew walking about Bourbon Street, I really hope we continue the emphasis on creepy as much as eccentricity (and not simply in the "Heroes"-esque telekinetic wreckage moments).

Equally, the lighter feel is absolutely apparent. Compensating for "Asylum"'s grungy nature, we have a very colorful season almost uncomfortably close to the third season of the CW's "Supernatural," which I mentioned in my "Coven" preview. But this is New Orleans. It's Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, and it's the city of Jazz. If the directors can continue to mix the bright with the creepy in the same way as the city they're based in, it'll play out just fine.

My other worry is how "Coven" dove into the story so quickly. Though the show has always leaned toward a very intentional over-the-top styling that features rapid cuts to keep the audience unsettled, at times the backstory felt a bit rushed. We hit our stride at a breakneck speed this week. If that was needed in order to dive into a season that can waste no time because it has so much story to tell, I'm in, even if it wasn't particularly elegant. But I'm trusting that by season three, these guys know what they're doing, and that they'll slow down at the right moments.

But that's just a handful of my thoughts about the loves and worries. What did you guys think?

The next episode of "American Horror Story: Coven," "Boy Parts," airs Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 10 p.m.