When FX first announced the title of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s third iteration of their deeply disturbing yet undeniably tempting “American Horror Story” series (“Coven,” premiering Wednesday night at 10), I’ll admit I had to stifle a yawn and a complaint: Does it have to be witches?
We gotta lotta witches these days — some in pre-production, some in post-production and some already outstaying their welcome on other networks. The problem is, your modern TV witch is usually about as scary and/or interesting as a picked-over Halloween aisle at Walgreens; she’s all sexy spells, smoldering glare, plunging neckline, designer jeans and tousled mane — and sometimes she’s all that in the package of a sullen teenage girl. (Come back, Samantha Stephens, with your twitchy nose and immaculate living room!)
Watching the first episode of “American Horror Story: Coven” (which is all FX would let critics see in advance), I began to wonder if, during our nation’s shameful history of witch persecution, any of them were ever charged with the crime of being boring?
It could happen here. “Coven” is the first time “American Horror Story” gets started with the unmistakable feeling of timecards being punched, as an ensemble of big-name stars dutifully carry forward the show’s trademark fixation on style over substance. On “American Horror Story,” a specific brand of camp works best, but the tone is always hit or miss.
Jessica Lange has adeptly revivified her career by giving herself over entirely to Murphy and Falchuk’s most primal urges to build a high-end replica of the Hits-97.5 Fear Factory down at the mostly abandoned strip mall. Lange first played a scary next-door neighbor in 2011 and then, in last year’s “Asylum,” a sadomasochistic nun straight out of the worst Catholic-school stereotypes.
This time she’s Fiona Goode, “supreme” witch of a New Orleans-based coven that operates Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a boarding school for witchy teens. Though it has a storied history dating back to the 1790s, the school currently has only three students — make that four, as sad-eyed Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) arrives, having just literally sucked the life out of her boyfriend during a heavy-petting session. Zoe’s mother, aghast that witchcraft still runs in the family, has packed her off to Miss Robichaux’s.
“American Horror Story’s” most devout fans probably have stronger opinions than I do about whether the show is better or worse when it’s set in the present day. (“Coven” is set in the present, with flashbacks to the past.) Murphy and Falchuk clearly treasure a retro-historical feel, reaching for a ready archive of nightmare fodder that includes old-fashioned sanitariums, asylums, convents, rectories, orphanages, laboratories, boarding schools, jails; they fetishize any place where one can imagine unmitigated misery dealt by authority figures and secret psychopaths. The show is always better when it resembles a scratchy print of “Rosemary’s Baby” instead of some forgotten season of “True Blood.”
For that mood, “Coven” opens with a deeply disturbing scene set in the French Quarter of 1834, where the evil Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates, clearly eager to have some of what Lange has been having on “American Horror Story” these past few years) washes her face in the freshly harvested blood of the slaves she keeps in an attic torture chamber. That’s right — mere minutes into the show, viewers must take in the awful sight of slaves in variously gruesome straits.
“Bonsoir, my pets,” she greets them, while preparing a special punishment.
“Why are you doing this to us?” one of her subjects moans.
“Because I can,” the madame replies.
What better way to explain why “American Horror Story” is the way it is, shows what it shows? Because they can, and because we allow it to be. We reward its unhinged provocation and grisly depictions with the delight of our tweets and shrieks. As far as Murphy and company push things, we seem incapable of pushing back, or pushing the off button.
I confess that last season’s “Asylum” tested even my lapsed-Catholic tolerance with its endless church-themed deviance, although I did enjoy Lange’s over-the-top portrayal of Sister Jude. I came back several episodes later, in time to savor the scene where Lange performed “The Name Game,” a novelty hit song from the 1960s, but, overall, I just thought the show had become too pleased with its own sickness. Which is precisely the reaction Murphy and Falchuk desire; they seem to think that overdoing it is the only way to do it. And the minute you express your revulsion, you’re instantly not cool enough to watch the show.
On Wednesday’s episode of “Coven,” for example, Zoe and another student (Emma Roberts) sneak off to college fraternity party. After a few drinks, what’s the worst that could happen to these girls? Does your answer include “rape”? Then you, too, are onto “American Horror Story’s” favorite compulsion; the show seems to always be in search of a new way to depict sexual violation.
On the plus side, “American Horror Story’s” cachet continues to draw a dream list of talent, especially with this season’s demand for strong women. It’s as if two gay movie and Broadway buffs were sitting in a room shouting out random names of actresses they wish would do (or return to) “American Horror Story,” and, lo, it comes to pass: Kathy Bates! Angela Bassett (as voodoo legend Marie Leveau)! Gabourey Sidibe! Patti LuPone! Frances Conroy! Sarah Paulson! Christine Ebersole!
I’m sure they’ll all have great fun horrifying it up and pushing our limits, but to what end, really? At some point, a discerning viewer needs something besides repeat trips into a bad dream.
(one hour) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on FX.