Monday, December 9, 2013

Pilot Season: American Horror Story: Coven (Oh Joy)

It's come to this. At last we are talking about the final pilot of this particular pilot season. I know. It's been a long time coming.

Slightly longer, in fact, because I have to admit that I didn't really want to watch this show.

I mean, I find it interesting, in a car-crash-on-the-freeway sort of way, but American Horror Story has never been my jam. Mostly because it is comprised of all the things I really hate in television: it's more about imagery and tone than it is about story and plot, it relies on being shocking to cover up the fact that it has no narrative structure or character development, and it's wildly racist and harmful to women. Also? It's a show without hope or any semblance of morality. So pretty much just a list of things I don't like.

Given that, then, you might wonder why I chose to watch this season of the show at all, or at least the first episode. And don't worry, I was wondering that right along with you. But the answer really is simple: I still have (had) hope that this season, with its emphasis on racism and sexism in history might just manage to make me invested, and could very well end up with something worthwhile to say.

I no longer have this hope.

The episode starts out with a flashback to the slave-holding South. Madame something-French (Kathy Bates) is desperately trying to ship her daughters off to the meat market, making sure to emphasize their gifts, even if they have no particular beauty. Which was funny, because all those girls were gorgeous, but I'm pretty sure this was a case of Hollywood Homely. One of her daughters, though, makes a racy comment and then eyes up a slave, and we know trouble is coming. That daughter is then caught with the slave a couple hours later, and her mother, incensed, takes the slave up to her personal torture attic. She blames him for defiling her baby daughter, even though he protests that he wasn't interested and she came onto him, and decides that as his punishment, she'll make him into a beast. Specifically, a minotaur.

Fast forward to the present, where two teenagers are trying to get jiggy with some disastrous consequences. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and her boyfriend discover mid-sex that she's actually a witch, which causes some unfortunate brain aneurysm action, and gets Zoe shipped off to a witch academy in New Orleans. Poor Zoe and her cursed vagina.

At the school, Zoe meets the headmistress, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) and the other witches-in-training: Madison (Emily Roberts), a starlet with a bad habit of telekinetically murdering people; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), a "human voodoo doll", which is precisely as gross and racist as it sounds; and Nan (Jamie Brewer), who is clairvoyant and also the only likable character in the whole dang show. The girls get along about as well as can be expected of teenage witches, while Ms. Foxx tries to teach them how not to use their powers. Fun stuff.

Madison wants a new friend, because neither Queenie nor Nan is good enough, so she grabs Zoe and whisks her off to a frat party where they're the toast of the town. Madison acts bitchily to every boy there, while Zoe chats up the one nice frat boy. And then Madison gets roofied and gang-banged, while Zoe and her boy search desperately for her. Upon finding them, the boy is brutally beaten by his frat-mates, while the others get away. Zoe runs after them screaming, but it takes Madison staggering out and flipping their bus with the flick of a wrist to end the matter.

And then Cordelia's mother waltzes in. Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) is the Supreme of all witches in her generation, and aside from being a cocaine-snorting weirdo who murders men for their ability to give her eternal youth (because all women are really that obsessed with being young, sure), she's also probably the worst mother ever. She grabs the reins of the school and decides that if these girls want to have a chance not to burn at the stake, they're going to have to learn some real witching. She then proceeds to teach them nothing of the sort.

She does, however, raise Kathy Bates from the dead, and lose Zoe, who has wandered off to the hospital. She wants to know if the one nice boy in that frat survived the crash. He didn't. The actual survivors are the two worst offenders, who came up with Madison's rape, so Zoe enacts her revenge. She murders them with her vagina.

And then the credits roll.

I mean, there are a few other things that happen. We find out that in the past, Angela Basset killed Kathy Bates, because the slave she made a minotaur was Ms. Basset's lover, and we discover that apparently people are burning witches again, but that's the major gist.

Here's the thing about this show: it's engrossing. I finished the episode, having been completely and totally disgusted the whole way through, wondering if I should track down the next episode so I could keep watching. And I didn't actually enjoy watching it. But for whatever reason I wanted to keep going. I didn't, for the record. I got up, got a cup of tea, and settled down to watch some QI, but still.

There's a whole treasure list of things I found distasteful in this show. I don't like to feel like an old prude, but this show brings out the Puritan in me. Or maybe it just brings out the reasonable. Either, way, I deeply object to a number of things shown in just the first episode. Here they are, roughly chronologically.

Every woman is obsessed only with her beauty and her age. There are two separate characters who are shown to be obsessed to the point of murder with making sure they don't have any wrinkles. Both Jessica Lange's and Kathy Bates' characters show that they are willing to do whatever it takes to look young. I don't object overall to having a female character obsessed with reversing the effects of aging. Some women are. But I do object to having the two older female characters, the only two, equally fixated. It suggests that once women reach a certain age, there is nothing else they care about than the tightness of their skin.

So that was problematic.

Also an issue? Queenie's magical power. While Sidibe does an excellent job making Queenie funny and interesting, her magical power is by far the most problematic one on the show. She has the power of being a "human voodoo doll", which means, I guess, that if she stabs herself, someone else gets hurt. It's imaginative, sure, but it's also, well, awful. Queenie is (at this point in the show), the only main character of color, and her power is to mutilate her own body. She's also the only main (at this point) plus-size character, and again, her power is to mutilate her own body

And, of course, it's offensive that they gave the only African American character a voodoo doll power, instead of picking something with more historical weight instead of shock value. But that would go against the grain of the show.

Let's see. What else was an issue? Oh right. Zoe's cursed vagina and Madison's rape. I include these together because, make no mistake, they are directly related. The show has been set up so that the two images of sex we see in the first episode, including the two similar looking white girls, either include murder or rape. In the first case, where Zoe clearly consents, her boyfriend has an aneurysm and nearly dies, a pretty classic "punished for having sex" storyline. In the other, where Madison does not consent, she herself gets raped. So, either consent and kill everyone you love, or don't consent and get raped. Whoo!

Like with most things, I don't think the writers are sitting in their offices plotting out ways to be the most sexist, racist show on television. I don't think they're plotting at all. From what I can see, Ryan Murphy and company have done what they always do: they took a laundry list of things that people would find "shocking" and threw them together with powerful imagery in a way people could vaguely construe as art. Which is, ultimately, more offensive.

It means that Madison's rape and Queenie's mutilation and Zoe's curse all have no actual impact or importance in the story. They're just there to be shocking, to make viewers cringe. They aren't there so that the characters can grow and change, they're there to titillate and to make you gasp.

In effect, the show is repeatedly violating these characters, putting them through hell not for themselves or because they chose it, or even to give them some form of development, but because it can.

To which we say a resounding, "Hell no," and back away.


  1. This show has far too many people I like in it.

  2. I enjoy AHS a lot, in the same way I like eating a gallon of ice cream or chopping down a tree when I'm depressed. But instead of shocking, a lot of the time I find it boring as hell. I end up just waiting around for them to stop talking and do something, which is the price, as you pointed out, of having virtually no tangible plot and not giving a damn about character development. There is a reason horror has typically only succeeded in 90 minute formats (as far as film goes), and there's a reason I literally forgot about this show halfway through the 2nd season. Snooze.

    The one thing this show consistently has is an opportunity for actors (and even more often actresses) to show off some hard-core scenery chewing. Its like Thanksgiving for passion players. I love that. Which is not to say that a predominantly female cast--who often play both the primary villain and the primary heroine, at least more than in other dramas--offsets the obvious flaws. I totally share Ryan Murphy's blatant love of Jessica Lange, but I do not share his madonna/whore view of women, obsessions with vanity and youth (nip/tuck, glee), or constant need for irredeemable, one dimensional characters.

    If there is one show on TV that on the surface looks like I should love it, its AHS... But it's just too dumb. I enjoy it, sometimes, and I love the actors. But more often than not I only wish I loved it.

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