WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Hands-down, American Horror Story (AHS) is the most divisive TV show currently airing, and during every episode I find my opinion changes every five minutes. It can be transcendentally good (well, occasionally), a fine purveyor of gore and strangeness (always), and yet it's monumentally stupid and prone to repetition while wandering down narrative dead-ends. Most episodes feel like they're written by someone who didn't see the preceding script, and has only been told what happens by a drunk friend the night before. It's a show I often want to wash my hands of, and yet I keep coming back every week. It's not simply a case of "hate-watching", either, because that sadistic pastime runs its course. I think it's because the actors are trying so hard to impose a sense of clarity and consistency the writers fail to, and the surprising durability of a show that, for all its faults, is unlike anything else on television.
This third season (entitled Coven) was intended to be less harrowing and downbeat than the previous two, and it achieved that aim. But that doesn't mean to say this year was sweetness and rainbows. Far from it. It couldn't feeling lighter, by virtue of the emphasis on women and the inherent silliness of this year's New Orleans witches backdrop. Like most seasons of AHS, things began promisingly before spiralling into a mix of chaos and bad ideas, punctuated by grisly shocks. There were some big themes and ideas woven throughout Coven; about motherhood, sororities, ageing, abusive relationships, racism, class feuds, and (above all else) oppression. I just wish the show had a better sense of purpose and clearer goals to achieve, because each week it was hardto know what to make of Coven.
The two biggest problems this year has been the inconsistency of characters and the lack of stakes (beyond the two Frances Conroy's Myrtle Snow was burnt at, hee-hee). I don't think anyone genuinely cared who could became the next "Supreme" witch, or the feud between the witches (led by Jessica Lange's Fiona Goode) and voodoo practitioners (led by Angela Bassett's Marie Laveau).
Worse, death itself was reduced to a mere inconvenience by a character who can resurrect the deceased (Lily Rabe's Misty Day), and then the Swamp Witch's seemingly "unique" ability became almost commonplace. I gave up keeping track of how many people were killed and then came back to life, even if they'd been burnt to a crisp or beheaded. The rules of Coven's universe were too open for negotiation. In many ways this is indicative of how the narratives of AHS always feel half-improvised. One week it's a cool idea to have Sarah Paulson's Cordelia Foxx lose her sight (so she can develop have psychic "visions"), then it's convenient to have her vision restored, then someone thought it would be fun to blind her again (through self-mutilation), and so on and so forth.
It's an exhausting and exasperating show that always overstays its welcome (although I think Coven ended better than Asylum last year), and yet it simultaneously provides a style of entertainment unparalleled anywhere else. And in all good consciousness, I can't totally hate something that's found a niche and is working for an audience with short attention spans and a thirst for shocks. I just wish it didn't feel so lazy and the plotting was always so random (as if charted using Silly String™), because there were ideas and characters in Coven that could have led to a very cool supernatural drama, instead of the "guilty pleasure" AHS is branded as.
Television would be a more boring place without AHS on our screens, that's for sure... but is that enough? The key to how this show survives is simple: each season tells a different story because AHS is a horror anthology, so even if you gave up on Coven you may get pulled back into whatever season 4 becomes. But after three years on-air, the flavours and formulas of AHS are clearer than ever before, and I don't think anything is going to change now. Why would it with around 3 million satisfied subscribers each week? And you're either happy about this fact, or at least prepared to accept the show's many weaknesses in exchange for the jolts of pleasure half its seasons contain.