If you have not been watching American Horror Story: Coven, you should start immediately. It’s understandable why you might not have tuned in every Wednesday night: Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator and producer, does not have a track record of making great TV. The second season was nowhere near as exciting as the first. The whole anthology series concept is confusing and easier to ignore than try to understand. But in its third installment, American Horror Story has finally hit its stride, ironically right in the middle of the decline of the horror TV revival. (It’s all about period pieces and fantasy nonsense these days.)
What makes Coven so great? It might be that Jessica Lange is at her most complex (and most smokin’) as Fiona Goode, leader of a troubled witch coven descended from Salem. It might be her stone-cold nemesis, voodoo queen Marie Laveau (played by Angela Bassett, who is new to the series). It might be that it deals with some of the heaviest issues the show has ever touched on, with episodes tackling racism, feminism, and oppression without breaking a sweat.
But what really sets this season apart from the others (and from everything else on TV) is its willingness to play with the genre. Coven is a horror TV show through and through, but it isn’t afraid to experiment a little. Characters like budding witch and movie star Madison Montgomery (played by Emma Roberts, who was born for the role) have allowed the show to dip its toes into black humor, something that’s always had a few moments in seasons past but has been a highlight of season three. The show introduced gore (a first for primetime television?) with Kathy Bates as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a socialite-cum-serial killer based on a real woman who lived in New Orleans.
It all adds up for some wacky TV each week. It feels vaguely reminiscent of the first season of True Blood without all of the campiness and lax HBO standards. It stands out because since horror TV became fashionable again (a fortuitous effect of a certain young adult vampire book series—I owe Edward Cullen so much), the content has been getting pretty formulaic. If you, like me, were raised on Courage the Cowardly Dog and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, you have been impatiently waiting for TV to get weird again. And it has.