Jessica Lange leads her charges (Emma Roberts, Jamie Brewer, Taissa Farmiga, Gabourey Sidibe) on "American Horror Story: Coven."
‘AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN’ ★★★
9 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays on FX
Updated: November 9, 2013 6:21AM
The first season of “American Horror Story” transfixed me with its terrifying tale of a haunted house.
Too many disparate elements — aliens, Nazis, a possessed nun — had me bailing on season two, “American Horror Story: Everything but the Kitchen Sink.”
My feelings about the anthology’s third installment, “AHS: Coven,” hover somewhere in between.
The storyline is more tightly focused than last year’s see-what-sticks approach. But it also feels like it’s pandering a bit to a younger CW crowd ready to turn up their TV sex and violence a couple notches on the sadistic scale.
Set in New Orleans, this season’s frightfest — chockablock with all the blood and gore fans have come to expect — revolves around witches.
It jumps back and forth in time, from the fallout of the 17th century trials in Salem, Mass., to the present day, when witches apparently are a dying breed. Young keepers of the torch get shipped off to an eerie Hogwarts in the Big Easy, where these “gifted” girls have to learn how to harness their power and protect themselves from persecution.
Several “AHS” all-stars are back. Emmy winner Jessica Lange is fantastic as an age-obsessed alpha witch. Likewise for Sarah Paulson as her less-diabolical daughter, headmistress of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies.
The student body includes Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer from season one. They’re joined by “AHS” newcomers Gabourey Sidibe (Queenie, a human voodoo doll) and Emma Roberts (Madison, a spoiled, telekinetic movie star).
A couple of “Coven” characters are based on actual historic figures: Angela Bassett does a turn as voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and slave torturer Madame LaLaurie is played by Kathy Bates, funneling her rage at NBC for canceling “Harry’s Law” into a scene-stealing portrayal of this wickedly cruel woman.
“Coven” is easily the most female-centric of the “AHS” anthology, which should make for an interesting experiment on the male-skewing FX network.
“While there is a very strong feminist theme that runs throughout ‘Coven’ this year, there’s also themes of race and themes of oppression,” writer and executive producer Tim Minear told TV critics this summer, a few days after filming started. “There’s a very strong theme of family, specifically mothers and daughters. Those are some of the things we’ll be exploring, along with laughs and scares and a few tears.”
Laughs typically are about as rare as an unused knife in “AHS.” Injectinglevity into “Coven” lightens things up without sacrificing the darkness of the story.
“The fun quotient is higher this year,” Minear said. “It’s a drama but there’s a lot of humor. So it’s not the same as it was the last two years, but I think it might be a little more welcoming to an audience.”