Over the course of its first two seasons, 'American Horror Story' has become rather infamous for its decidedly unconventional style of twisted storytelling. Not just content to tell a straightforward tale of terror, the writers often pile outrageous ideas upon one another, constantly shaking up the show's status quo while leading the narrative down strange and unpredictable detours. With 'Murder House' and 'Asylum,' this "craziness upon craziness" approach works surprisingly well, but with 'Coven,' the series' third season, the show's usual penchant for random insanity feels a lot less like unbridled imagination, and a lot more like pure creative indecision. Messy and disappointingly inconsistent, this batch of episodes never really seems to know what it wants to be, leading to an entertaining but frustratingly uneven experience. Where's Bloody Face and Rubberman when you need them?
Primarily set in the present day, the story focuses on a group of young witches. Born with amazing powers, these women have been persecuted throughout history, and as their numbers continue to dwindle, they take refuge in a school in New Orleans. Led by the all-powerful "Supreme" witch, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the girls attempt to hone their skills -- but as Fiona selfishly searches for ways to extend her life, and a centuries' old feud with a Voodoo priestess (Angela Bassett) reignites, the coven is put into complete disarray. With their survival on the line, the witches search for their next Supreme, hoping that a new leader will be able to save them from extinction.
The season begins promisingly enough, introducing us to the series' complicated witch mythology through the perspective of Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmgia), a confused teenager who discovers that she has a deadly supernatural power. After sitting 'Asylum' out, it's nice to see Farmiga back on the show, and the actress does good work in the role, demonstrating solid growth as the initially fragile girl learns to embrace her gifts (and she even gets a pretty awesome 'Evil Dead' moment). Fellow returning season one cast member Jamie Brewer, and newcomers Emma Roberts and Gabourey Sidibe, round out the class of inexperienced witches, and each actress does what they can with the material they have to work with. The great Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett all chew up the scenery nicely as well, but despite their best efforts, the predominantly female cast can't overcome some notable issues with the writing.
To put it bluntly, 'Coven' is simply all over the place. And while the same was most definitely true of the previous seasons, here the inconsistencies don't just result in bizarre twists and narrative excursions. Instead, the plot, characters, and overall tone suffer from a complete lack of cohesion or drive. While the show has been able to make an art form out of breaking narrative rules in the past, the unconventional storytelling and wobbly mood here just comes across as sloppy. Focus shuffles about listlessly, characters abruptly switch sides and change motivations at the drop of a hat, campiness clashes with unsettling gore, and plotlines are setup and then lazily neglected or abandoned. To this end, stories constantly go in circles with characters who are caught in an infinite loop, going back and forth between good and evil, and even alive or dead. Hell, some of the cluttered storylines are so disparate from one another, that they almost feel like they're part of completely different shows.
This is especially true of Kathy Bates' character. While Madame LaLaurie (loosely based on an actual historical figure) has a definite tie to the show's New Orleans setting, her connection to the season's overall story is superfluous at best. We spend an awful lot of time setting up her disturbing backstory through occasional flashbacks, but her arc ultimately has nothing to do with anything and ends up feeling rather pointless. Bates is a fantastic actress, and as a performer she fits in nicely with the series -- which is why it's so odd that the writers didn't give her a more relevant part. Though, at least the actress gets some meaty material to work with, which is a lot more than can be said for poor Evan Peters who is completely wasted. Relegated to little more than grunting, his character is distressingly ill-conceived.
Thankfully, all is not lost, and while the writers clearly have no idea where they are going with the story from the onset, there is definitely some fun to be had along the way. Witches, Franken-boys, immortals, Voodoo demons, minotaurs, ghostly serial killers, zombies, talking heads and, uh… Stevie Nicks, all fill the season with gleefully twisted imagery, classic horror thrills, and the sweet, sweet sounds of Fleetwood Mac. These various elements rarely click together, mind you, but the sheer insanity of it all is pretty entertaining. The Halloween themed fifth episode also proves to be one of the season's highlights, offering one of TVs most exciting and unsettling zombie attacks this side of 'The Walking Dead.' But as outrageous as these various supernatural aspects become, the show's most frightening elements remain all too human, examining disturbing examples of torture, racism, incest, and sexual abuse.
'American Horror Story: Coven' is kind of a mess -- but at least it remains a relatively engaging and entertaining mess. Marked by the same kind of strong cinematic style that has been a hallmark of the series since its inception, these thirteen episodes are visually compelling, even if the plot and characters can leave you scratching your head. A flimsy undercurrent of female empowerment and mother/daughter issues tries to tie the various arcs and themes together, but ultimately this is the show's most disjointed and disappointing season. Still, fans looking for a solid horror fix this Halloween could do a lot worse, and the incredible ensemble of talented actresses end up elevating the jumbled material. Here's hoping that 'Freakshow' can bring back a bit more narrative cohesion to all of the show's trademark insanity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox brings 'American Horror Story: Coven' to Blu-ray in a 3-disc set packaged in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. All thirteen episodes are spread over three BD-50 discs. After some skippable trailers, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A coded.
The show is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though a little uneven, the series continues to be stylistically strong on Blu-ray.
The source is in pristine shape. Light grain is present throughout, but its appearance is intentionally heavier during flashback scenes. Detail in the present day sequences is strong, offering sharp clarity and strong dimension. With that said, the filmmakers use frequent filters and occasional camera effects in certain instances that can blur the image and make portions of the frame look out of focus. Likewise, some flashback sequences provide a comparatively soft look. Colors are rich and well saturated, and whites are bright without blooming. Unfortunately, black levels leave a bit to be desired, and dark scenes tend to have a slightly noisy and blue cast. Artifacts are very minimal, but some fleeting compression issues and banding do crop up in isolated instances.
With its cinematic aesthetic and solid technical presentation, 'Coven' looks comparable to past seasons, preserving the show's spooky visuals well.
The series is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. Like the video, the audio here is of similar quality to past seasons, doing the show's subtle yet atmospheric design work justice.
The opening theme and all of its dissonant effects continue to be just as unsettling as ever, perfectly setting the mood for each episode. Dialogue is clear and well balanced, but just like in past seasons, there is a very slight boxiness to high frequencies. The track tends to be a little front-loaded, but the mix offers effective ambiance, bringing the swamps, cemeteries, and mansions of New Orleans to life. Directionality is also solid, spreading specific sounds around the room (a door knock, a car engine starting, etc.) when appropriate. The witches' spell casting also leads to some cool design choices, and no season of 'American Horror Story' would be complete without some requisite "boo scare" music cues. And speaking of music, we're even treated to a few tracks from the great Stevie Nicks, and the Fleetwood Mac songs sound great with strong fidelity and separation.
A bit more surround activity could have helped to enhance the mood here and there, but the audio remains rather immersive and there are no major technical issues to speak of.
Fox has included a small but decent collection of featurettes (but sadly we get no commentaries or deleted scenes this year). All of the extras are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitles.
While just as gleefully twisted as previous seasons, 'American Horror Story: Coven' proves to be the show's most disappointing and undercooked effort. Thankfully, despite its messy narrative, the series remains perversely entertaining and the stellar female ensemble is a joy to watch (even when they are doing some rather unsettling things). On the technical front, the video transfer and audio mix are both strong. Sadly, we only get a small trio of supplements. Fans of the show will likely still want to check this release out, and with Halloween quickly approaching, binge watchers could do a lot worse for a horror show marathon. Worth a look.