Popular FX television series “American Horror Story” has returned to the air for its third season just in time for Halloween. This season, entitled “Coven,” focuses on a boarding school for young witches with different powers and abilities in modern day New Orleans. The series shows no signs of slowing; as of a few weeks ago, “Coven” boasted the biggest premier viewership ever.
In case you’re not familiar with the structure of the show, here’s an overview: every season introduces a new storyline. The cast remains mostly consistent, but the characters that they portray change from season to season. “American Horror Story” staples include Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy and the formidable and indispensable Jessica Lange. Other actors that have graced show include Zachary Quinto, Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, Jamie Brewer and Denis O’Hare.
This season, the show inducts Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Emma Roberts and Gabourey Sidibe into the powerful and talented cast.
The strategy of writing a semi-long-form narrative while keeping the main players consistent is a fantastic way to keep and increase viewership. Viewers who loved the first season will continue to watch for the high production value and fantastic acting. Viewers who didn’t find themselves completely onboard for the story in the first or second go-round may return for new seasons in hopes of a fresh start. And new viewers can tune in at any point without any prior knowledge of the show.
The first season, subtitled “Murder House,” was a dark and daring introduction to the show. Watchable on Netflix, the first season followed the story of the Harmon family, who had recently moved into a spooky, obviously haunted, house. The story, which might sound formulaic, kept itself fresh by introducing intriguing characters.
Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge alternately portray Moira O’Hara, the house’s resident maid, who is mysteriously able to switch between matronly house-cleaner and sexy temptress. Tate Langdon (Evan Peters) is a troubled youth who may or may not have committed homicide and is accompanied his mother Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange). Constance seems fiercely protective, almost aggressively so, of the Harmon house. This highly stylized introductory season gained quick viewer loyalty with its show-stopping acting, infuriating sense of mystery and unique content.
The second season, subtitled “Asylum,” stepped the show up a notch. Following the story of the creepy and abusive Briarcliff Mental Institution of the mid-1960s, run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) and Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) and overlooked by Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), this season is gorier, more disturbing and more than the first. In this season, characters fight for survival and the preservation of their humanity. By introducing story lines that feature characters fighting desperately to rise above their circumstances, “Asylum” grabs viewers by the shoulders and doesn’t let them go until the final shot of the finale.
Season 3, which premiered on Oct. 9, promises to be controversial with such characters as the coke-addled “supreme witch,” Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), and a resurrected slave owner played by Kathy Bates.
The trouble with the season-to-season structure of “American Horror Story” is that viewers often get attached to the characters and story of one season, and are not ready to move on to the next. Each season must therefore fight to win the alliance of its watchers, meaning that the showrunners must make sharp distinctions between characters played by the same actors.
This is where “Coven” must prove itself. Jessica Lange in particular, who plays the imposing, morally-ambiguous and tough-loving “head bitch in charge” in every season, seems to be struggling to differentiate Fiona Goode from her previous roles as Constance Langdon and Sister Jude. Sarah Paulson, who hit her stride in Season 2 in her intense and demanding role as Lana Winters, a reporter unfairly incarcerated in Briarcliff, will also need to prove her versatility as she takes on another lead as the headmistress in Season 3.
Although “Coven” will need to prove itself a completely separate and original entity from its forerunning seasons, there are many not-so-hidden gems that promise to vitalize the story. Jamie Brewer, whose stint in “Murder House” was regrettably short-lived, returns to play a mysterious and heretofore quiet role. However, his character is one that has been promised indefinite power as the show develops.
This season will also explore hard-hitting distinctions between good, evil and revenge. Already in “Coven,” we have seen victims of sexual violence murder their rapists and slaves torture their owners. Although “American Horror Story” has always sported themes of comeuppance, this season will truly delve into the relationship between oppressors and oppressed in more detail.
“American Horror Story” is coming into its own. Fully establishing the show as a diverse and woman-heavy series, it has truly embraced the theme that it hinted at in the first season, gave shape to in the second and will actualize in the third: smashing the patriarchy. If “Coven” can distinguish itself from “Murder House” and “Asylum,” it will be a powerhouse of drama, entertainment and, of course, horror.
Elise Martorano can be reached at [email protected]