The latest season in the disturbing anthology “American Horror Story” has all the elements of a successful Disney Channel original movie or cult CW series. “Coven” has young adults, an evocative boarding school, magic and a sense of danger. Except, unlike the attractively cast whim-indulgent shows of teenage TV, “Coven” does not portray a fantasy you want to vicariously live through. Rather, it is your worst nightmare.
Like its predecessors, the third season of “AHS” does not fail to shock our moral sensibilities and leave us craving more. If the opening credits are any foreshadowing of the upcoming season, we can expect dark allusions to slavery, lots of voodoo, mythical creatures and anything “Hocus Pocus”-related (cats, levitation, potions, pentagrams).
The premiere follows Zoe Benson, played by Taissa Farmiga, and her story as to how she ends up in the boarding school with the other “gifted girls.” She is like Harry Potter when he is still living with the Dursleys, except instead of a Hogwarts letter, Zoe discovers her power through more explicit means.
Zoe is the descendant in a long line of witches with a rather creative and bizarre ability that sometimes skips generations, but obviously not hers.
She is quickly swept off to school, but instead of a burly but lovable Hagrid-type, she is transported by silent men in suits who look like they are part of the Secret Service.
Zoe is dropped off alone in New Orleans outside Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies — a smoke screen for its actual purpose as a school for young witches, which is run by headmaster Cordelia Foxx, portrayed by Sarah Paulson.
Cordelia traces the history of the house as a safe haven for witches, which she says are a dying breed. The headmaster stresses the dangers of being supernatural in a black-and-white world and the importance of controlling one’s powers or risk being burned at the stake.
But like the Xavier Institute in “X-Men,” there is some tension between teacher and student about assimilation versus fighting back. Other than Zoe, there are only three other students at the academy: a clairvoyant named Nan played by Jamie Brewer, a human voodoo doll portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe, and an arrogant telekinetic movie star named Madison played by Emma Roberts.
The antagonist to conscious Cordelia is her less-restrained mother, reigning Supreme witch Fiona Goode, protrayed by Jessica Lange, who believes the young witches need to maximize their power in order to be invincible against humans.
Fiona is like a wicked version of one of the Ya-Ya sisters. She dances around in a sheer black robe, reciting spells one moment and reaping her vengeance in another. Fiona is reaching her final quarter of life, and she has a dangerous obsession with immortality.
I expect this theme of vanity will be a recurring one, seeing how the show opens with a barefaced Kathy Bates painting blood on her face with a makeup brush in order to stay young. If that wasn’t enough of a haunting image, I instantly flashed back to her as a psychotic Annie Wilkes hobbling her captives’ feet in “Misery.”
Bates plays Madame Delphine LaLaurie in “AHS,” the lady of the household, who is based on a controversial past New Orleans resident. And while everything seems Southern-proper to the outside world, inside and up in her attic, Madame Delphine keeps slaves to mutilate and torture. Show creator Ryan Murphy is known to allude to sensitive historical events as with the Holocaust last season, and this season, I would expect no less. Like the cruel countess Elizabeth Bathory in the legends, Madame Delphine harvests blood and organs because she believes they will give her eternal youth. She also has some kind of sick fascination with mythology as she affixes a hollowed-out bull’s head on her restrained manservant Bastian and proudly proclaims she now has her very own Minotaur. Think of the Doomsday Killers Four Horsemen re-enactment in season 6 of “Dexter.”
If “AHS” is anything, it is shocking. Some of the surprises are plot twists, and some are just so abrasive to our regular perception that we recoil. In a one-hour episode, the audience is confronted with racial injustice, gang-rape, murder, sadism and persecution, and this is just the beginning.
“AHS” is a horrible show, and we are horrible people for watching it.
A version of this story ran on page 11 on 10/17/2013 under the headline "‘American Horror Story’ sets up for a Supreme season"