I've covered American Horror Story since it began, and I still think it's a very impressive show. Horror on television is difficult under the best of circumstances because of the limitations of the medium. You're limited in the depths of depravity you can plunge into, even on FX, and dragging out a scary story over the course of 13 episodes is a monumental task.
For the first two seasons, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seemed to be up to that task. Both Murder House and Asylum had their down episodes, true, but not all Friday the 13th flicks are equal, so why should we expect the same of a TV show? Unfortunately, as Coven comes to a close, it's also becoming damned near unwatchable. All that is sustaining me at the moments are the rumors of a carnival-themed fourth season.
What's gone wrong this time around?
There's No Reason for Characters to Stay Where They Are: The series has a set of very specific plot points that it hits each season, and one of those is the way it turns the setting into a character itself. To do that, though, the house must be some sort of prison either literally like it was in Asylum or in more subtle ways like the Murder House was. There is no conceivable reason for anyone to stay in New Orleans this time around. The war between the witches or between them and their enemies, the bloody catfight over the position of Supreme, every single problem can be solved as simply as the characters deciding to just walk away from the whole mess, and the plot has failed to deliver a compelling reason they don't. Which brings us to...
Everyone Hates Each Other: This is the first season where there is not a single drop of love between any two characters that lasts more than a few scenes. Currently, the warmest relationship is between Fiona and Marie, and it's based more on the fact that drinking after killing people is a fun way to spend an evening than anything else. Every other scene is a betrayal or a random act of hateful violence, and that makes it impossible to care what happens to them.
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The Love Story Is Ridiculous: "But what about Zoe and Kyle?" you said on the last point. They like each other. They're in love.
No they're not. Their relationship Is horrifying on a hundred different levels.
Think about it. Kyle is basically severely mentally handicapped because of the whole being-dead-and-put-back-together-made-of-other-people thing, and then if that wasn't enough, he was dropped back off at his child-molesting mother's house, where he murdered her in a confused rage. That leaves him completely at the mercy of Zoe, who is drawn to Kyle out of both a sense of obligation and guilt and the fact that his being already dead makes him one of the few people she can have sex with without killing. Spalding has a healthier relationship with Madison's corpse than Zoe and Kyle have.
Great Actors Are Being Wasted: Speaking of Spalding, I really hope Denis O'Hare didn't turn down a fat movie check for this season. He's fun enough as a creepy butler, but the modern master of the hammy villain monologue has spent the season without a tongue. We've already talked about what happened to Evan Petters, one of the best things about Asylum. Then there's Lily Rabe, who went from being a delectably horny demon nun last season to being a Stevie Nicks groupie with the mental acumen of a first-time World of Warcraft player.
Death Is Meaningless: Just so you know where I'm coming from on the death-on-television front, I am a rabid Doctor Who fan. That means I have had more emotional damage inflicted on me by character deaths than most. So listen when I tell you that bringing people constantly back to life is really, really shitty writing.
In a horror vehicle, death or worse has to be the game-changer. You have to root either for the justice of vengeance or for the escape of innocence. So between the unlikable characters and Mist Day reviving them anyway every five minutes, one of the most powerful forces in storytelling is impotent.
MacGuffinkinesis: Of course, now two characters have the ability to resurrect the dead, which brings us the main problem of magic in this season. First, it is random and effortless. There is no functional difference between Marvel's mutants and the witches. Only are they ever occasionally shown needing to study or exert any effort to perform miracles. For the most part they appear instantly when needed and are then lie around completely oblivious that the whole purpose of everyone being in the house in the first place was to become better at magic. It's really hard to take the whole Supreme thing seriously when performing a myriad of magics is less hard than changing a tire.
It's Not Nearly as Feminist as It Thinks It Is: You'd think that a show featuring Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett as the three main leads would be as girl power as you could ever want. I wouldn't cross any one of those three separately for any amount of money, and combined I'm sort of surprised they're not surrounded by a tribe of men in maid outfits vacuuming while the women throw ice cube at them. When Jessica Lange dies Suzanne Venker will automatically disappear back to the mirror world.
That said, the plot is literally a struggle about who is the youngest and prettiest looking. Seriously, that's the whole Supreme bit plus Lange seeking Bassett's immortal beauty... not that anyone can be blamed for wanting to look like Angela Bassett but come on. Throw in an unhealthy dose of "Bitches be crazy, amrite?" and the show is surreptitiously more sexist than the first season of Mad Men.
They Leave Basic Story Ideas to Die on the Vine: So, a main plot thread is the immortal Delphine LaLaurie being buried in good old racist 18th-century America and waking up to a time when Barack Obama is president. The only person that shows her any kindness is Queenie, who is black. You see where this is going?
Sorry, no can do. Queenie betrays LaLaurie to Marie and in the process we learn that... what? LaLaurie was right to treat blacks like animals since they really were going to torture her endlessly and be untrustworthy? Look, I know a bigot learning a lesson about the worth of the people they feared and hated is a tired old story, but it's something solid and easy to deal with amid the wildly unrelated writing. Yes, forcing her to watch Roots was a stupid gimmick, but letting at least one person on the show grow in a positive manner wouldn't kill you.
Nobody Wants Anything: You get development by giving your characters a purpose. Our four or five little witches that are supposed to make up the Hogwarts School of Macabre Maleficarum are less goal-oriented than a gay panda. Zoe wants to protect the coven... then runs away after murdering the staff. Madison wants to be Supreme... then spends every moment pissing off the people she's supposed to lead.
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Nan wants to boink the cute religious boy next door... but once he's dead she goes to hell in order to change outfits (Bitches and clothes, amrite?). Queenie... no idea. So far she's tried to seduce a minotaur, gone to work in a hair salon, and sewed up an undead woman who hates her in order to keep her on a leash. Is there no high school counselor here to ask what any of these girls plans to do with their lives? I get paid to watch TV and play video games and I've got a better career plan than them.
Stevie Nicks: I love Fleetwood Mac. "Gold Dust Woman" is one of my all-time top ten songs and Gypsy 83 is one of my top 20 movies. That said, there is no reason to make a vague nickname for Nicks a major plot device in a show that is supposed to be scaring us. There's not much horror story in throwing away an episode to hear Nicks sing "Rhiannon" for the millionth time.