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TV Tonight: American Horror Story: Coven

Compared with the crazy-good frenzy of past AHS seasons, Coven's cauldron starts at a relative simmer

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Frank Ockenfels/FX

Taissa Farmiga as a witch-in-training

I have seen only the premiere episode of American Horror Story: Coven, and so far I can report that it is a more controlled, clearly structured, and competent beginning than the series has had to date. But don’t hold that against it.

Fans of AHS–and I’m a gimp-suited member of the club–know that it works best when it’s on the verge of failure. It makes virtues of anarchy and incoherence that would sink lesser shows. You do not, after all, demand logic and consistency of your nightmares. The two self-contained seasons each ran on insanity and chaos, like some sci-fi warp drive that generated power by smashing together matter and antimatter. Season one found its way gradually, mashing up a domestic marital drama with a murder-house mythology, but its ’70s-influenced horror jelled improbably by the season’s end. Season two, an incense-drunk, Catholic creepshow set in an asylum, was both zanier–Priests! Nazis! Aliens!–and more emotionally rich. But both worked their dark magic on a primal, more than rational, level.

And AHS: Coven? With its focus on a school for wayward teenage witches, Coven is straightforward in its premise: it’s a CW series, almost literally, from Hell. We gain entree to Miss Robichaux’s Academy, in an I-do-declare New Orleans of spooky mansions and voodoo, through Zoe (AHS troupe veteran Taissa Farmiga). She discovers that she has inherited The Gift and is packed off by train not unlike Harry Potter (except that, not to spoil anything, let’s just say her revelation of her abilities comes by a more TV-MA means than Owl Post). Farmiga is again compelling here: nervous and charged by her dawning power, enigmatic, vulnerable, terrifyingly teenage.

Zoe joins a trio of acolytes–a telekinetic, a clairvoyant, and a “human voodoo doll”–under the direction of headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), in a schol whose first lesson is: how to stay alive, in a world that likes to use witches as cordwood. This turns out to be a matter of controversy in the Witch Community. Cordelia’s low-profile strategy is dismissed by elder sorceress Fiona (Jessica Lange), a lusty Type-A witch who enjoys being superpowered and lives by the rule, “When witches don’t fight, we burn.” And as the premiere soon shows us, witches are indeed still burning.

So, a few supernatural TV tropes here: young people discovering their powers (The CW and WB before it), assimilation vs. fighting back (True Blood), magic as a metaphor for incipient adulthood and sexuality (you name it). But this being AHS, the premiere is preparing many more ingredients for this jambalaya. As in the previous seasons, there’s a mythology of original sin: here, an antebellum witch queen (Kathy Bates), who used slaves as the miserable subjects of her grotesque sorcery. There’s a revenge plot reverberating from the 19th century to today, and, this being a Ryan Murphy joint, generous helpings of blood and sex, often conjoined.

Above all, there’s a powerhouse female cast (also including Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, and Frances Conroy among others) in a story that, like season 2, has overtones about the demonization of female power and sexuality. I’m less sure what the season will do with the potentially volatile racial themes the premiere hints at.

But AHS seasons have always thrived on the philosophy of risk and excess. So far, the first episode of Coven is a stylish introduction (complete with black hats). The two seasons before give reason to bet it will throw a lot more in this cauldron, and to hope for some strange magic.

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