Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. Five of the more promising words on offer to the American television audience, and reason enough for even those put off by the absurd amount of sexual violence, sadistic brutality, extreme gore and downright silliness that marked the first two seasons of FX's "American Horror Story" to gather 'round for the third.
With "American Horror Story: Coven," which premieres Wednesday, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seem to be choosing the more traditional elements of a deliciously scary campfire story over the hyperbolic elements of comic book horror (Nazis! Aliens! Serial killers and their serial-killing sons! Anne Frank! ) of previous seasons.
There's still blood and gore all over the floor, mind you. Not to mention rape, gruesome torture and evil run riot, and that's just the first episode. But there's also a lightness of touch and tone, a backlight of sly humor and, more important, a clearly delineated narrative.
In a post-"Harry Potter" world, a young witch discovering her powers and peers is not, perhaps, the most original story. YA fiction is chock-a-block with teens learning that they are really members of an outlier caste — children of gods or demon hunters — for which there is a special school. But witches offer an enticing blend of the mortal and nether worlds, with plenty of terrifying possibilities.
And, in this case, a cast that just does not stop. Bates is not the only A-list newcomer; Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, Patti LuPone and Mare Winningham are also joining the already high-wattage series regulars, who include Lange, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Jamie Brewer, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy and Denis O'Hare.
The action begins in New Orleans, 1834, at the home of Bates' psycho-socialite Madame Delphine LaLaurie (an actual historical figure), who debuts her daughters downstairs while horrifically torturing her slaves in the attic. Cut to the signature creepy credits (say what you will about this series, it always has terrific credits), then present day, where young Zoe (Farmiga) attempts to have sex with her boyfriend and winds up killing him. As with so much of the "American Horror" franchise, "Coven" takes the Puritanical view of female sexuality (life-sucking power in need of control) quite literally.
Here at least it serves a purpose beyond misogynist metaphor. Zoe discovers she is descended from a long line of witches, and her parents know just what to do: ship her off to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans. There, she meets mild-mannered Headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Paulson) and students Madison (Roberts), Queenie (Sidibe) and Nan (Brewer); each witch-girl possesses a different supernatural gift along with the requisite adolescent attitude.
Cordelia favors a curriculum of repress and control, which is swiftly interrupted by the return of her mother, Fiona, (Lange), this generation's Supreme witch. Fiona has a very different ideology. "When witches don't fight, we burn," she tells her young charges as they trail after her through the streets of New Orleans like figures from an Edward Gorey drawing.
Fiona is also concerned with the rigors of mortality — being a Supreme does not prevent death, or wrinkles. A side trip to Madame LaLaurie's house reminds her of Delphine's own ghastly beauty ritual, and the possibility of a perilous, but narratively productive, alliance arises. Literally.
"Come on, Mary Todd Lincoln," Fiona says when the two finally meet, "let's go get a drink."
The prospect of watching Lange and Bates toil and trouble their way through the Big Easy casts a spell of its own, but there is plenty of plot to go around. Good witches and bad witches, young witches and old witches, all embodying, one hopes, the many faces of the archetypal crone rather than just vessels for more violence.
As with the opening of any good ghost story, the pilot is something of a feint. The quartet of young women flounce and sulk like a diverse cross between "Pretty Little Liars" and "Charmed," O'Hare spends his few moments on-screen as a mute servant in a fright wig, Bassett's sorceress is but briefly glimpsed and LuPone is nowhere in sight. All that will change, no doubt. There will be blood, and monsters, power plays and many horrible things going bump in the night.
More important, most important, there will be Jessica Lange. Having used her considerable gifts to heave the "American Horror Story" franchise out of the teeming guts of torture porn into its occasional moments of humanity, she has earned a role in which she can vamp and terrorize. In and out of control, as vulnerable as she is powerful, Fiona is, essentially, a grim student of women's history, in which playing by society's rules rarely works out well.
If witchcraft is a time-honored and double-edged metaphor for female sexuality, Lange's Fiona seems determined to show us what a midlife crisis really looks like.
'American Horror Story: Coven'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun