Monday, February 3, 2014

TV Review: American Horror Story (yes, all of them)

Before we begin our review, a quick note: I do include spoilers from seasons 1 & 2. I do not include spoilers from season 3, as I know many have not watched it in its entirety yet. So, read on without fear...

Initially, I wasn't going to write a review for American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of the hit series from Ryan Murphy that just wrapped its finale on FX this past week. I felt that I was being unfair in my own expectation of the show, that I was jumping on the social media-inspired bandwagon of disappointment for this show.


To be fair to you and to myself, I had to admit that it was a far cry from season one (retroactively titled Murder House when someone decided each season had to have a distinct title) in a good way. Season one's story, about a family that moves into a haunted house, was initially quite simple. In fact, in retrospect, I feel it was overly simple and suffered from being improperly elongated into 12 episodes. *Season 1 Spoiler Alert*
That season was about a cheating husband who attempts to piece together his marriage and his family after his affair nearly tears them apart by relocating to a notoriously haunted house. Ruh-roh, it's haunted by murderous ghosts that seem to have boundary issues with the physical world and an axe to grind. Sometimes literally. Sometimes figuratively.


Season 1 started slowly, built to a very exciting story, and then it just wouldn't die. There were several points at which the story felt completed, but the show was bought for 12 episodes, and 12 episodes it would have. Honestly, if the material had been cut down to 6 episodes, and the writers chose only the seriously good content, it could have been a flawless horror story. The interesting thing about this season is that it lacks what future seasons, most especially Coven, had in spades: lots and lots of story lines. Sure, it had lots of characters with their own background episodes, but it had a singular running story about a family, an affair, its repercussions, and how the haunted house helped to bring all the truth to light and add its own mayhem. Good idea. Not enough follow through.

I must jump ahead to Coven, because I watched the seasons out of order, not that there is any order to the show. I just didn't watch them in the sequence in which they were originally aired. I'm not sure how I missed watching Asylum, the second season, but I did, and here we are.


Coven started at breakneck speed. A show about witches, immortal Voodoo Queens, immortal racists, magic, a school for witchcraft, and Fiona - our Supreme Witch (aka, The Supreme or Head Witch in Charge or The One With All The Magic And Fabulousness).We were all set up with our cast of characters. We had our storyline, or at least what seemed like was going to be our storyline. We had some interesting side stories introduced that looked like they might intersect and drive the main plot, which is usually what secondary stories do. And, for the first 6 episodes, I was absolutely over the moon in love with this show. It was gory, but it was a horror story and I felt it wasn't nearly as gory as other horror shows I've seen.

But, then, I started realizing there were a lot of stories going on... In the first season, you got a glimpse of a specific spirit that resided in the house, they joined the story in a major way for that episode, and more or less faded into the background for the duration of the season. It was a way to almost have a Supernatural style 'monster of the week'.  However, in this witchy season, that formula was altered. Characters were added in a major way, and then they hung around in a major way. They didn't fade into the background to allow the prime story inside that school of witches to remain at the forefront.

The problem isn't that this happened - had this been any other television series, this would have set Coven up to be a long-running 5-7 season television show with the potential for some epic badassedness. The problem is that this happened in what was pre-established to be an anthology style show, a television series that would and must end the original story it was telling by the end of the respective season. Murder House had nothing to do with either Coven or Asylum, and the other two seasons were identical in that they never intersected characters or plots.

So, the stories began wrapping up...in incredibly unexpected ways. Stories you thought were major plot lines were made out to be secondary tropes. Secondary stories were brought to the forefront and then suddenly abandoned. Incredibly interesting plot devices and characters evanesced, never to be mentioned again. Foreshadowed events never occurred.

Seriously, what the hell?

Whereas a kind of justice eventually prevailed for most of the characters in Murder House, Coven was not going to let its cast get away so easily. I don't know if the writers decided they had been too easy in the prior two seasons or what, but it's like they really hated the notion of anyone getting out of this season with any kind of lasting peace...a sense that they had been through hell and somehow come out the other end of it.

And I understand.

It's a horror story.

But...damn... There are fates for some of those characters that are just wrong on a basic human level.

I will always hate Ryan Murphy a little bit for this.

As a fan of the kind of show American Horror Story is, and an even bigger fan of the supernatural Witchy-centric genre that Coven was a part of, I was left feeling as though there had been 3 different sets of writers tasked with creating Coven. Each set being kept completely apart from the other two, being told only loose and basic plot points from what the other respective groups were writing.

I do not believe that the story that was being told at the beginning of the season is the story that was told throughout, nor do I believe it is the story that ended up being told. The focus constantly shifted to one character or group and then to another character or group. Ideas on where the story might be going, what the point of it all was, changed (almost episode to episode).

In high school when we were doing the Wizard of Oz (I was the Tin Man), my director told us that if you ever wanted to know the heart of a story, the character or idea that the author was really trying to talk about throughout his or her pages, look to the title. And, many times that is true. For us, in that moment, it was about understanding that our characters were all trying to get to the Wizard, to Tomorrow, to the place where all our burned earth would become green grass. The Wizard was hope. He was magic. He would make our troubles go away and right us on our individual road of yellow brick.

If the Title-As-Thesis argument is true, I suppose there is no way that I can fairly say that season 3 didn't tell the story it said it was going to tell. The title was Coven. It told a story about a Coven, sure. But a coven is made up of many people, and while it seemed to have finally gotten to a point about where said Coven was going to end up, I still do not believe that it was told well. If the story was about the future of the coven, then there was too much fluff added to the show. And, as much as we loved the resurrection of, arguably, the most famous Voodoo Queen, I feel that her presence overshadowed and stunted what was allegedly the plot of the season.

Really, when there's this much fierceness, who can honestly compete?

There. I said it.

I loved her, too, but she made for one too many main characters that the writers simply didn't know how to properly handle.

Perhaps one weekend in the future I will watch Coven on Netflix, when it's available, all in one fell swoop. Perhaps seeing the entire story all at once, instead of spread out over half a year, will help me to realize its cohesion.

I was left, after the recent finale, thinking that AHS was going to be a show that I watched with mediocre expectations. Looking back over who Ryan Murphy, creator, writer, and producer of AHS, is seemed to have affirmed my suspicions that each season was going to be cursed with being 'almost great'. It's good. Don't get me wrong. But, it's not great. Murphy's biggest credits to date as a storyteller are:


  • Glee (a show that suffers from its own ironic crisis of direction) 
  • Popular (an underrated television show that never gained mainstream acceptance)
  • The New Normal (an okay-not-terrible-but-not-great depiction of a modern gay family that seemed to actively attempt to offend)
  • Eat Pray Love (which was good, but removed nearly all spiritual components of the original story so that it came off more like a wealthy woman's mid-life crisis than a spiritual rebirth)
  • Nip/Tuck (never seen it, but I'm told it is legitimately good)
  • American Horror Story (suffering from Murphy's curse of being 'almost great' television)
Ahh...but there's a season I'm missing, isn't there? All these words about seasons 1 & 3, and those of you who have kept up with AHS are screaming at your computer screens 

WHAT ABOUT SEASON 2?!

Season 2: Asylum. When Coven finally wrapped, I sat down with my Netflix and my 3-day weekend ahead of me and I watched Asylum. In fact, I just finished the final episode about an hour ago. 


American Horror Story: Asylum is a work of genius television. 

And, it should be noted, that I do not say that lightly. The writers knew exactly how they were going to tell their story of the Briarcliff asylum. They knew exactly how far to take their stories. And, they knew not to muddy the 3 main characters' stories with the addition of 5-7 more 'main' characters. The secondary stories stayed present, but markedly second to the main story. They drove the plot, but did not, themselves, take over that plot. And, they each ended in natural, meaningful ways. 

Just start giving Lily Rabe every award ever, please.

By the end of it, I was in tears. I have read that the second season was about sanity, and the dance we play around its line. I disagree. The story is about sin, redemption, and forgiveness.

It. Is. Powerful. Television. 

Like the aforementioned lesson of the Wizard of Oz, it tells a story of a group of people in and around an Asylum. Lucky for this season, the writers realized that time in TV land can be as elastic as you need it to be, and they stretch the story out over a span of several years. It told some very creepy, very disturbing stories, but they each had a beginning, middle, and end that made sense and helped tell the greater story of the heartbreak and reality of life in an Asylum. It did tell, as others have pointed out, the story of sanity. Of how fragile it can be, and how we decide that disbelief in the supernatural is the same thing as it not being real, is the same thing as belief being a sign of insanity. 

The typical insanity tropes are all there: possession, alien abduction, being trapped in your own head, disassociation from reality, psychopathy/sociopathy/anti-social personality disorder (to use the terms as they've evolved for the same thing). The typical horror tropes are present: murder, spirits, violence, creepy fuckers wearing masks made out of people's faces. 

But, what made the season so genius is that behind the horror, there was heart, there was a point. There was an endgame in mind for each character that seemed natural and consequential. The innocent nun who was held against her will in her own body by a demonic entity finally is allowed peace. The wrongfully held man is found innocent of the murders he was convicted of and finally is able to forgive his captor. The head nun who is corrupted by her own twisted, projected sense of justice that inflicted the punishment on others she knew should have been inflicted upon herself, goes through purgatory, is judged by the fires of the Hell on Earth she created, and is finally allowed to have peace after paying for her crimes. 


This is the work that proves Murphy has it in him to create powerful, meaningful television in the genre of horror. Had he and his team not gotten cocky off the triumph that was Asylum, Coven could have compounded on that powerful, meaningful storytelling and done the same thing for the pro-feminist/pro-women story that this season should have been. But, it settled for being snarky and over-filled with Divas with serious attitudes throwing around their power and their werrrrrking it for all the ladies and gays watching. The gays love a good SnarkyBitchDivaGoddess, and Murphy delivered Fiona, Laveau, LaLaurie, Cordelia, Madison, Queenie, and fan favorite Myrtle Snow.

I swear to you, I half expected RuPaul to show up.

I loved the SnarkyBitchDivaGoddesses as much as every gay and lady out there was supposed to, but it was simply too much for one mini-series. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it was hoisted by its own petard. It was overzealous and didn't trust its audience to be smart enough or adult enough to handle a mature story and decided instead to give us a series of scenes in which the various SnarkyBitchDivaGoddesses got to have witty one-liners or fabulous abuses of power in some sick fantasy fulfillment. (And...seriously...zero real world consequences? For any of it? They kill more people than the first season, easily, and it was called MURDER HOUSE?!)

All told, this American Horror Story is not over. The internet says we're heading to the 1950s for season 4, and that the incomparable Jessica Lange will be leaving us for season 5. Let's all hope to the gods of television that Murphy and company remember the lessons of seasons past and give us a solid story, beginning to end, that leaves us horrified but for a good reason.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

3 comments:

  1. When I first started watching Asylum, I thought too much was going on (and hated the aliens). By the end, I thought it was awesome, and I still think it was the best season. Coven was disappointing, on so many levels. I agree so much with what you've said about Asylum though - genius, and the way it tied up was perfect. Coven felt too big and like it was bleeding everywhere. Asylum felt big - but that's because the world it was telling was big. Coven could have been the same, but it got too wrapped up in individuals, I think.

    Oh well. Maybe next season will bring something amazing?

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  2. The main thing I loved about AHS:Coven was that everyone kept dying and then coming back. Initially I was really annoyed by this because it gave the impression that death wasn't important and that immortality was really easy to obtain. But then the last two episodes blew me away. Suddenly, characters were dying and staying dead. And I got then ending I wanted!
    On the topic of Asylum, I think that season freaked me out the most. I feel like that season was designed to make the viewer feel very, very uncomfortable. Which was a nice change from AHS: Murder House. That just scared the pants off me.

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  3. Asylum is, as you say, pure television genius. Lange is stunning.

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