American Television’s Horror Story: On the Wildly Stupid (and Wildly Insensitive) Coven

AHS

This is what it felt like to watch American Horror Story: Coven.

On all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was a failure. I should rephrase that. Calling something a failure suggests that it made an attempt at doing something, or simply tried, but it turns out Coven did no such thing. The third season of FX’s “anthology” series had a hard time barely existing on a week to week basis, and floundered about at every chance it got. So, on all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was some of the worst television to ever be put on the air, and was a fucking abomination, to say the least.

The only thing that kept me watching Coven week after week was the prospect that it could surpass American Horror Story‘s first season’s awful, horrendous, and often times excruciating terribleness. Spoiler alert: it did. This was a surprise to me because I really hated the series’ first iteration, Murder House, which was just about as dumb as its title suggests.

It might seem like I’m some sort of AHS: Hater who has way too much free time on his hands and uses it to write obsessive amateur blog posts about how much he hates the show, but I do have some affinity for Asylum, the series’ second iteration. Asylum was smart and knew exactly what it was doing. It didn’t matter that there were Aliens, Nazis, Werewolves, Nymphomaniacs, and a murderous Santa Claus all in one place, because it was simply set in an asylum, where the rules of storytelling could be stretched by any means necessary.

This gets me to why Coven worked so poorly. On a storytelling basis, Coven was absolutely horrible. In what seemed like every episode, one character would be killed, another turned into a ghost, and another brought back from the dead. Coven‘s muddled and convoluted mess of a plot never really advanced, and NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENED. The only thing that kept Coven (barely) afloat was the bizarre possibility that Stevie Nicks, a witch herself, would appear on the show and sing a song, and when it actually happened it was so inexplicable that it had no impact on anything that had to do with the show.

This is all to say that Coven was a disaster. The structural rules of the show’s universe were constantly being broken and consequently rewritten. Nothing was ever coherent, and everything that defined Coven became completely and utterly pointless. The titular Coven was supposed to be an organization that enforced rules and brought order, but everything the show presented contradicted that fact. Why would an institution break the rules week after week without any consequences? And why were there no consequences anywhere in Coven?

This lack of consequences became especially disheartening as Coven explored race and its significance within the show’s universe. From the start, one could say that Coven functioned as an examination of power, and how factors like gender, race, age, mental illness, and class affect that power. As Coven‘s plot became more incomprehensible and eventually utterly unimportant, somehow the show’s primary focus became race relations in contemporary America. This shift in focus resulted in some predictably bad television, as Ryan Murphy (a genius, according to Derbil McDillet Dylan McDermott) and Brad Falchuk, the show’s creators, “explored” the issue of race in the most ham-fisted way you cold imagine.

The following is a list of actual things that happened during the run of Coven.

  1. A Black man was tortured and consequently reconstructed as a Minotaur. On top of being reduced to a monster, the man’s status as an animal was fetishized and glamorized by the show.
  2. Said Minotaur became sexually involved with the only Black teenage girl featured on Coven.
  3. The primary conflict of Coven became between the Voodoo community and the witches of the Coven, and this conflict stemmed from each community’s race. Essentially, the primary conflict of Coven became a Black vs. White race war.
  4. A historically racist white woman (the real-life Madame LaLaurie) was reduced to a head, and during her time as a head learned to stop being racist merely because she watched the 1977 miniseries Roots.
  5. Almost every single member of the Voodoo community was massacred in a highly stylized action scene set to none other than the civil rights anthem “Oh Freedom.”

That last item on the list is particularly problematic. While it might serve as a relatively smart story beat (uniting the two groups and ending the race war was necessary and provided one of the few sources of momentum in Coven‘s story arc), the actual sequence of Black Americans being slaughtered set to a historically significant anthem was executed in the worst way possible, and is one of the stupidest things American Horror Story has ever come up with. The only thing that can be said for the sequence is that it is offensive, disgusting, and shameful.

But this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched American Horror Story. In every moment, the show sets out to shock and horrify its viewers. There’s really no thinking behind the notion, other than the fact that it will get people talking. To constantly do this, American Horror Story exists in a hyper-reality where there are no rules, nor consequences. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk think they have the liberty to treat real-world issues, like race, lightly, and play around with them with no consequences whatsoever. This became entirely and painstakingly clear throughout the run of Coven, and it could be just as easy to get fervently upset about the show’s understanding (or lack thereof) of feminism or mental illness, for example. To truly enjoy American Horror Story (or any form or art, really) one must suspend disbelief. But to truly enjoy Coveit became clear that one must suspend their very own notions of cultural awareness and basic human decency.

I love television because of its profound ability to make one feel something over the course of many weeks. But when watching American Horror Story: Coven I only felt ashamed. Ashamed of those who were involved in making it, ashamed of the channel that aired it, and ashamed of myself for watching it. I don’t think television gets much worse than this.