American Horror Story (Murder House E1&2, Coven E1-3)

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I’ve been warily circling American Horror Story for a while now, dabbling in episodes as they’ve aired on the cable channel FX in the UK and feeling baffled as to why the show has had the acclaim that it has. Every time I tried watching, it seemed nasty and incoherent to me. Stylish but incomprehensible, going for the cheap shock effect at every possible opportunity just for the sake of it. Suffice to say, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t a fan.

ahs---coven-posterAnd yet, and yet … There was certainly something that kept attracting me back, like a moth edging back towards the flame despite knowing that every time I’d be burned and singed anew. I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was worth persevering with or if I should just give it up as a lost cause, a show whose appeal would forever be a closed book to me. Finally I decided that ‘dabbling’ simply wasn’t being fair to either party, and so it was time to give this one last chance and that this time I had to do it properly, by sitting down from the start and committing myself to a run of episodes.

The opportunity came with the start of the third season of American Horror Story on FX in October. The show is officially an ‘anthology’ with each season a stand-alone mini-series consisting of its own story and characters (although many of the actors are carried over from year to year in new roles, like a theatre rep company.) That means beginning with the first episode of season three (which has been given the overarching title “Coven”) is as good a place to start as any.

The storyline for this run centres on a school for witches located in New Orleans, an ideally atmospheric location for this sort of horror genre fare: the school is run by Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) whose mother Fiona (Jessica Lange) is the Supreme, the most powerful witch of her generation. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is a new student at the school with deadly powers who becomes involved with a local college student Kyle (Evan Peters) who unfortunately falls to pieces after meeting a quick and messy end – which is just the start for him.

The tone of “Coven” is very different from the episodes of season 2 that I had previously dabbled in, which was a deeply unpleasant and nasty tale set in an insane asylum where the inmates were far less crazed than the staff. The predominantly female cast of “Coven” (which also includes Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett, Mare Winningham, Gabourey Sidibe and Patti LuPone) is spectacularly good and makes for such a change from the usual sort of male-heavy TV show or movie, with the consequent themes being of sisterhood, motherhood and of the oppression of marginalised groups including a virulent racism best exemplified in Bates’ Civil War-era grotesque. It’s such a different mix of narratives than we usually get in TV and film these days that it’s instantly refreshing, smart and challenging and I was won over very quickly; three episodes in and I’m hooked by the intelligence and originality on display from all involved.

But hang on a minute – did that just make me a convert to American Horror Story overall or just to season 3’s storyline? The only way of finding out would be to go back to one of the earlier seasons and see whether watching it properly from the start would have the same sort of effect. And that meant throwing some money at the question by paying out for the DVD boxset.

I went for season 1, which lacked its own umbrella title when it aired but had been retrospectively dubbed “Murder House.” To all intents and appearances it is a haunted house tale in which the unsuspecting Harmon family relocates from Boston to Los Angeles and moves into a suspiciously good value mansion that proves to have a spectacularly bloody past to it. The main players here are husband and wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben (Dylan McDermott) Harmon; she’s recovering from a traumatic stillbirth and also from discovering that Ben had been cheating on her with a student. Taissa Farmiga shows up again, this time as their daughter Violet who is drawn to the possibly sociopathic Tate (Evan Peters) who is a patient of Ben’s in his new psychiatric practice being run out of the new family home. Meanwhile next door neighbour Constance (Jessica Lange) and her strange daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer) are never far away from their doorstep, and there’s something strange in the attic. And the cellar, come to that.

There are different themes being explored here from those in “Coven” – betrayal and forgiveness, sexual obsession and fetish – but once again I found them being tackled in an interesting, different and absorbing fashion. Where once the show had appeared simply gratuitously nasty and shocking for shock’s sake, I was once again confounded and soon realised that it was nothing of the sort – and that I was being pulled in, like it or not. It is actually rather good – excellent even – and with so much more going for it than True Blood which by virtue of having to keep the same through-story going over six seasons has managed to overcook itself into quite the ripe mess compared with American Horror Story which has the built-in luxury of completely rebooting itself every 13 episodes.

So there it is, against all my expectations I’ve come to appreciate the show far more than I ever thought I would or could. So far I haven’t revisited the “Asylum” second season that I found so off-putting when I dipped in as it aired on FX last year, but I’m certainly prepared to give is a another try – properly this time, from the start. Even if I still don’t like it, then that will be fine too: when a show walks this sort of high-wire in terms of the ambition of what it’s trying to do and how it does it, some spectacular failures are to be expected and even desired as long as it contributes to the overall long-term creativity of the series as a whole.

Chances are, though, I suspect I’ll now also really like “Asylum”. I seem to have found quite the taste for American Horror since Halloween.

Seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD and Blu-ray, both separately and individually. Season 3 is currently airing on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm and repeated during the following seven days. A fourth season has just been ordered.

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