Rebecca Barry Hill: Powerful show of character

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Jessica Lange is so far more comical than disturbing.
Jessica Lange is so far more comical than disturbing.

Jessica Lange is so far more comical than disturbing.

Witches are as terrifying as carrots. Only one screen incarnation was truly freaky but you didn't even get to see the Blair Witch outside your nightmares. TV hasn't really offered up much in the way of frights either, unless Sabrina counts as horror. Then there was the godawful Charmed with Alyssa Milano, which put me off using a broomstick for years.

Thank goodness then for American Horror Story: Coven (9.30pm Mondays; encores 11.30pm, Sundays, SoHo). Admittedly, these witches are not particularly scary but the show is creepy enough, with its gothic opening sequence and outrageous combo of violence and eroticism. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates play the witches and although they're more comical than disturbing, they still bring a powerful black magic to the show.

Coven is created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who also made Glee, but don't let that put you off. Both shows are camp, although Coven's gruesome nature suggests the writing pair had a few ideas left over from their Nip/Tuck days.

It opened with Bates almost reprising her Misery character, torturing black captives and smearing her face with their blood. In the second episode, obnoxious movie star witch Madison (Emma Roberts) convinced ingenue Zoe, (Taissa Farmiga) she could sew the perfect boyfriend together using body parts from the morgue.

Coven is the third of the AHS anthology, and the first series to screen here. Like predecessors Murder House and Asylum, the New Orleans-based tale is set in the present and past, and is way darker and more mischievous than modern fairytales like Once Upon a Time. Still, it feels a little tamer than Murder House, which revelled in horror tropes, its characters creeping around a shadowy mansion.

It's not so much the grotesque that drives the show but a not-so-subtle exploration of female ageing. Murder House was clever about it; when the philandering husband looked at the elderly maid, all he saw was a young seductress in a French maid's outfit.

In Coven, Lange's witch is apparently not powerful enough to stop her from developing wrinkles. So no big twists yet. When she's not preening, she taunts the young coven studying at a sort of grooming school for teenage witches, run by her daughter, Cordelia, a witch facing her own ethical dilemmas. She and her husband are having trouble conceiving but rather than let the doctor "play god" with IVF, she decides to intervene. Guess how that baby will turn out.

Rather than stringing the plot out over several seasons, AHS is smart about keeping viewers hooked. Although many of the same actors reappear - Lange, Farmiga, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe and Jamie Brewer - each series resolves itself. For viewers, that's bubble bubble, far less toil and trouble.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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