Near the end of 2013, two seminal television dramas are winding down: The Breaking Bad finalé aired at the end of September, while the once great Mad Men limps towards its final season. So what’s the best show on television now? Even though we’re only halfway through the current season of American Horror Story: Coven, let’s crown it now.
American Horror Story: Coven is an early Christmas present, for creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have showered us with gifts throughout the fall. Scary, funny, erotic, and wildly unpredictable,Coven features Jessica Lange as Fiona, the head of the coven. Lange is now the dark queen of television. Not since Meryl Streep’s arch turn in The Devil Wears Prada has there been such a cool and ruthless femme fatale.
Fiona is just fun to watch as she eviscerates a witch who dares to cross her: “Why look at you… developing a sense of style while no one was paying attention.” Fiona is a witch of formidable power who’s quite capable of torching a house with just a flash of temper. Yet the aging Fiona is also vulnerable — her regal beauty is fading and she’s slowly dying of cancer.
The coven also includes Emma Roberts as the sultry Madison, a prima donna with an acid tongue. Like Fiona, Madison can deliver a zinger with whip-crack effect: “Sorry I killed your boy-candy… but given your black widow status, he was living on borrowed time anyway.”
Opposing Fiona is the voodoo priestess Marie Laveaux, played by Angela Bassett, who burns a small hole in the screen whenever she’s on camera. Mortal men can only tremble in the presence of these goddesses. No show in recent memory has showcased such powerful and alluring women, and the performances of Lange, Roberts, and Bassett are pitch-perfect.
Murphy and Falchuk have broken the mold of the traditional television series. Each season of American Horror Story starts anew with an independent storyline, so there’s no carryover from the previous season. This gives Murphy and Falchuk a great deal of creative freedom and they take full advantage of it. They kill and maim lead characters with gleeful abandon. This has a jarring effect, for the viewer is never quite sure if their favorite character will survive an episode. This is groundbreaking television.
American Horror Story: Coven is also sly and culturally aware. Misty Day is a Cajun witch who can raise the dead. She also keeps a Stevie Nicks playlist on a constant loop. So when a resurrected frat boy smashes her iPod, she pouts, “You just killed Stevie.” Murphy and Falchuk don’t miss a beat.
They also toss a whole trick bag of horrors into the air like carnival jugglers. Voodoo spells, Ouija board séances, incest and necrophilia are all in play. Murphy and Falchuk keep everything airborne and one is dazzled by their nerve.
There’s a feminist power dynamic here that’s overt and aggressive. The witches dismiss men as the weaker sex; males are appraised by erotic attraction only. Taissa Farmiga’s Zoe unintentionally kills her boyfriend while riding him. The gender gap is turned upside down, unapologetically and with verve.
The most volatile and dangerous plot element is the taut racial tension between the coven and the voodoo priestess, Marie. The show is set in New Orleans, where the privileged coven live in an old plantation house built by a sadistic slave owner. Marie’s fury at the coven is deeply rooted in a bloody history of oppression and injustice. One is left with the indelible impression that old debts will eventually come due, and will be paid at a terrible price.
This show has everything, even a distinct Coven style and attitude. It’s best expressed by Farmiga’s Zoe, who conveys a demure schoolgirl chic that can only be described as sexy retro-goth. Black floppy hats and string ties are standard; for variety, Misty’s earthy, patchwork skirts provide a nature goddess vibe. Websites are popping up featuring Coven couture. Even the staid Parade magazine ran a Halloween feature on how to dress like a Coven witch.
For the last two months, American Horror Story: Coven has been a dark miracle, brimming over with terror, eroticism and humor. Murphy and Falchuk throw all of these volatile elements into one steaming cauldron. So what’s the best show on television? A crystal ball isn’t necessary. The witching hour is upon us.