The work of Ryan Murphy, the mind behind “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” can be outrageous, outsized, cool, crass and aggravatingly uninterested in internal consistency, but it could never be described as restrained. At their best, Murphy’s series have a dizzying fearlessness to them, a willingness to venture into territory others would be afraid to go anywhere near and emerge with bracing material. But those same impulses also lead to things like the wretchedly exploitative “Glee” school shooting episode, where you wish someone were there to rein in a creator who’s never been encumbered by taste. It’s why Murphy’s FX horror anthology series, which returns for its third season, “Coven,” on Wednesday, October 9th at 10pm, has been the best showcase for his talents, providing the kind of broad canvas that can accommodate all sorts of grotesque, campy and flat-out random inclinations as well as moments of curious and powerful poignance, and that can be set aside at the end of the season as the show moves on to something new.
Last season, “Asylum,” started with the very gratifying spectacle of Adam Levine getting him arm ripped off by a crazed killer named “Bloody Face” after stopping for sex in the ruins of a mental institution, and ended as a moving meditation on trauma and the nature of evil, and in between included alien abduction, demonic possession, mutilation and, most daringly, Nazi doctors and a character who claimed to be an adult Anne Frank.
In this week’s season premiere, “Bitchcraft,” “Coven” jumps into imagery that’s possibly even more fraught — it pays a visit to the attic of Delphine LaLaurie, a real 19th century Louisiana socialite, played here by Kathy Bates, notorious for torturing and murdering her slaves. LaLaurie, whose bloody beauty regimen is not nearly the most disturbing thing going on in her New Orleans mansion, has come up with a range of horrifically imaginative punishments for the slaves who’ve displeased her, though she meets her comeuppance when one turns out to be beloved of Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), another historical figure who’s famous as a practitioner of Voodoo.
The idea of “American Horror Story” trampling into territory of race and slavery is simultaneously exhilarating and alarming, and there’s no way to gauge how it’s going to go from just the first episode. The premiere sets up the present, in which teenage Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is sent to a finishing school that’s actually a haven for young witches, to meet with that disturbing past, though how they’ll fit together has only begun to emerge by the installment’s end. But as the title promises, this is an American tale of terror. The series has over the last season and this new one found potency in setting itself up as a hallucinogenic mirror for dark moments from our past, ones that are never that far away from the present
Briarcliff Manor in “Asylum” was home to the insane and the dangerous, but was also a dumping ground for people who didn’t abide by the restrictive “morality” of the time — the lesbian, the man in an interracial marriage, the woman who liked to sleep around. “Coven” is poised to deal with an even more savage and direct form of historical oppression, which certainly offers a lot of charged material for the series to work (or offend) with.
The contemporary storyline sends Zoe, who discovers her witchy powers in a racier, gorier variation of a scene in “X-Men,” off to New Orleans to a white-walled school run by the mild-mannered Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who only has three other students (witches are a dying breed): Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and Nan (Jamie Brewer), each with their own powers. Only the Supreme, born once a generation, has a wider range of abilities, and Cordelia’s not thrilled when the current Supreme, her mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange), descends on the school to inflict her own ideas about instruction on the four girls (and to vamp in signature Lange “AHS” fashion). Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon shoots the first episode with a restless moving camera that zooms into faces and swings overhead to take a god’s-eye-view position overhead, like a lurking spirit itself, pacing around the characters.
There’s no guessing where the story is going to head after the premiere, which is part of the thrill of “American Horror Story,” that it can span a coy, funny 1800s sequence in which we iris in on characters like a silent film and a discomfortingly realistic scene of an assault at a party, all in a single episode. It’s ridiculous, profane, gutsy and above all genuinely unpredictable, and that’s a rare and valuable quality in a TV series.