I told a friend who wanted to start watching American Horror Story that I pitied her not being able to experience the show's first season as it aired. Back then nobody knew AHS was a miniseries. As the end of the first season drew nigh and major characters died left and right (then came back as horny, bitchy ghosts), viewers became increasingly agitated, wondering how creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk could continue this singularly perverse tale for another year. As it turned out, they never meant to: We were watching an anthology series, but the unit of narrative measure was the season rather than the episode. This masterstroke let the showrunners futz around in whatever horror subgenre tickled their fancies and recast their favorite actors in fresh roles, as if presiding over a blood-soaked TV version of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre.
Now that the (spectral) cat is out of the bag, American Horror Story is experiencing a variant of the expectation game that burdens any show that makes shock part of its repertoire. We tune in partly to see if the show can be as outrageous, as trashy, as "Holy mother of God, did you see that?" as it was last year — and if it isn't, we're disappointed. That the freak show includes powerful, sometimes moving moments, arresting visuals, and stylized but clever acting (by Jessica Lange especially) is beside the point. There are nuances, but most people don't tune in for them, any more than they order a bloody burger for the pickles. Last year's tale, Asylum, featured wrongful imprisonment, racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic violence, rape, torture, unnecessary surgery, David Cronenberg–style body invasion, and a rampaging Santa Claus (played by Ian McShane!) who was basically Max Cady in a ho-ho-ho suit. As in Samuel Fuller's melodrama Shock Corridor, which Murphy showed to his writing staff, the titular asylum was America, the madness was American madness, and none of it was explored with subtlety. Forget about broad brushstrokes versus subtle: Murphy, Falchuk, and company are action-painting with gallon cans of red and black.
Having seen only the first episode of Coven, American Horror Story's third season, I wouldn't presume to make snap judgments about where it's going or how it'll stack up against seasons one and two. But I can report that the WTF needle starts spinning instantly and doesn't stop.
Set in New Orleans in the 19th and 21st centuries, the show revolves around Miss Robicheaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a school for witches-in-training that's like Hogwarts by way of Professor X's school in The X-Men. This part of the series is built around the rivalry between an assimilationist headmistress (Sarah Paulson) who wants her girls to keep a low profile and her boss Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), who has more of a "let witches be witches" attitude. "When witches don't fight, we burn," she says. (As Fiona, Lange gets a movie star's entrance: a close-up of a black spike-heeled shoe exiting a limo during a rainstorm, followed by an overhead shot that completely hides her beneath a black umbrella. She could be a femme fatale version of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, floating inside a black bubble.)
As is so often the case on American Horror Story, there seem to be several shows going on at the same time. One is about the philosophical rivalry about the school's direction. Another concerns Fiona's quest to be youthful (she wants to take an experimental hormone, and turns wrathful when denied). Another has a Clueless or Popular vibe, with new student Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) trying to fit in with other acolyte witches, including Gabourey Sidibe of Precious. (Zoe, a sixth-generation witch, is written and performed as a wide-eyed ingenue, but the specific power that landed her here is X-rated.)
There's also a historical component, and it's a doozy. The first ten minutes — which are set in the future home of the Academy, in 1834 — rank with the most disgusting, disturbing sequences ever aired on American television. We're not just looking at violence, but racially motivated violence, carried out in a supposedly genteel antebellum mansion built atop a dungeon filled with hideously tortured and disfigured slaves, lorded over by Kathy Bates's Madame LaLaurie, a real historical figure. There is a brazen audacity to that dungeon scene, and to close-ups of Madame LaLaurie daubing slaves' blood on her pale white skin as a beauty aid, and the almost unwatchable scenes that reveal how the blood is obtained. Angela Bassett's turn as voodoo priestess Marie Leveau is nearly as chilling because it invites us to take great pleasure in the character's righteous rage.
As revolting as LaLaurie’s atrocities are, and as open to charges of bad faith and exploitation as they are (even as they are based on the real LaLaurie’s crimes), these are the kinds of images that American horror could use more of.* It's unafraid of anything, least of all charges of bad taste So when I say that the slave-torture imagery sits uncomfortably alongside the teen popularity stuff and the magisterially trashy sequence in which Fiona violently vamps to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," you need to take it with a grain of bloody salt. American Horror Story might know what it's doing, and it might not. Either way, narrative volatility is as integral to the show's appeal as Jessica Lange's sexy cobra smirk.
If the season-three premiere is any indication, although AHS has lost its novelty, it still has that seventies and eighties grindhouse/drive-in/midnight movie feeling. Watching it, you wonder if it has earned the right to show some of the things it's showing you, or if the notion of a horror movie "earning" the right to its images is itself bourgeois and boring, and perhaps the entire point of this type of horror is to be irresponsible — to pearl-dive in the deep end of the national unconscious and emerge with all the treasures it found on the bottom: a hacked-off penis, a skull full of eels, an aborted fetus with shark teeth and gills. Early on, Madame LaLaurie coos about "vengeful gods and wonderful, miraculous creatures." AHS: Coven has those, plus witches, a petite mort that's not so petite, and a poultice made from a human pancreas, a flashback to the Salem witch trials done in the style of an early silent film, and disfigured faces that would have made Francis Bacon avert his eyes. Falchuck and Murphy make TV as if they're convinced they could die at any moment and want to breathe life into as many of their cockamamie ideas as they can before they go. Their company motto could be a line from Starship Troopers: "Come on, you apes! You wanna live forever?"
* This post has been corrected to note that LaLaurie was an actual historical figure.