Oh my shattered nerves! On your behalf, I have watched American Horror Story: Coven (FX Canada, 10 p.m.).
The opening episode tonight is called “Bitchcraft” and, well, there’s a lot of gory stuff going on. Set in New Orleans, and flitting between the past and the present, the action features the abuse of slaves in a basement lair; an unfortunate young man dying a bloody death the first time he has sex; the use of a youth-inducing poultice made from freshly extracted human pancreas, a gang rape and Jessica Lange sucking the life out of a fella for being vaguely rude to her.
It is also quite witty and made with formidable visual panache. And the acting is universally excellent. Little wonder that that the previous instalment, American Horror Story: Asylum, had 17 Emmy nominations. It only won two, but the admiration for these horror projects is there.
American Horror Story is the creation of Ryan Murphy, who also created Glee, and his writing partner Brad Falchuk. It is unique in the flourishing area of fine, challenging U.S. cable dramas in that it takes a core group of actors and places them in a different but thematically-linked story and setting, in each season.
The first outing in 2011 was a cracked, cryptic, meandering haunted-house drama drenched in melancholy and sexual longing. Jessica Lange stole it, as a vicious-tongued neighbour who, one supposed, was actually a chatty-Cathy ghost. Last year’s second season was set at an asylum for the criminally insane run by the Roman Catholic Church, in 1964. Lange was back, smacking her lips, as a dominatrix Sister Jude, running the joint. Highly charged with scenes of sado-masochism, it went off the rails dramatically, but garnered those 17 Emmy noms.
Coven is lighter, much tighter and sublimely cast. This is still adult entertainment, offering perverse titillation. It’s still flaky, scary and arch, but there are characters to root for. Mainly set in a school for young witches in contemporary New Orleans, our eyes and ears are those of teenage Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) because her parents have realized she comes from a long line of witches and is in serious trouble. The headmistress (Sarah Paulson) says she helps her young witches learn to harness their powers. Indeed.
And they must harness the power because people are out to get them – the Voodoo people to be exact. Here Jessica Lange plays a “Supreme” witch (sooner or later, one expects jokes about Diana Ross), who pronounces, “When witches don’t fight, we burn.” Meanwhile, in the past, Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is busy abusing her slaves and painting her face with blood to enhance her comeliness. It’s all very murky, the connection between the past and present, but you can rest assured blood will flow, sex is followed by death and both Bates and Lange will savour every word of the script’s demented melodrama.
You won’t find this series as unnerving as Asylum. It’s twisted, but sometimes funny and clearly a loose parable about strong, gifted women being despised by others and ceaselessly attacked. It’s a feminist story, really. And gloriously sumptuous to watch, thanks to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Michael Goi.
Oh my shattered nerves, that was fun.
Also airing tonight
Take note that Boss (Bravo, 10 p.m.) comes to more accessible cable after previously airing on Super Channel. One of the top series of the past few years, it’s brilliant, stunningly good TV. Boss is precisely focused on Chicago politics and it has a corrosive tone that’s menacing. (It was nominated for two Golden Globes and Kelsey Grammer won for best actor, drama.) After a long career in comedy, it gave Grammer a career-defining dramatic role. From the grim Chicago scenes in the credits (Farhad Safinia wrote it and Gus van Sant directed the first episodes) it’s clear this is TV drama with gravitas and a sense of menace about delivering the truth. Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Grammer) is told he has a degenerative disorder that will ruin his physical and mental health. He stares back, unmoved. He’s already sick; in the ways that power makes men sick.
He continues running Chicago. His icy wife (Connie Nielsen) could be his enemy or his consort. His top adviser (Martin Donovan) arranges the most appalling of political actions. And there’s the mayor’s other adviser, Kitty (Canadian Kathleen Robertson), who engages in another kind of ruthlessness, of the sexual variety. Boss is as fine as TV has been in the past decade. Don’t miss it.