Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. In this very special episode we’re covering new shows involving witchcraft: American Horror Story: Coven, The Originals, Sleepy Hollow, and Witches of East End. Be warned, these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS—nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
American Horror Story: Coven
The Road So Far: Despite the fact that FX insists on calling AHS (FX Wed 10p) a miniseries, it’s basically one show with the pieces jumbled each season. All the actors play variations on the same characters, only with new settings and new skillsets. This go-round, AHS is witch-tastic. Fiona Goode (irony, har har) leads a clan of untrained newbie witches to discover their powers. Heading up the voodoo side is immortal Marie Laveau, because you can’t have New Orleans without voodoo, apparently. (Coincidentally, when I started drafting this review, “Marie Laveau” by Albert popped on to WWOZ. MAGIC!) Chewing up the scenery is Delphine Lalaurie, a sadistic psychopath cursed with immortality and buried in a box in her yard after she was discovered commiting horrific atrocities against her slaves.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The first season dealt with the collapse of the family, the second with perception—as in how what one sees may not be what is actually happening—and this season deals with oppression and suppression. In a word, slavery. I’m not sure which came first, the theme of subjugation and Lalaurie fitting the bill or, more likely, Falchuk and Murphy discovering Lalaurie and grafting a plot onto her gruesome tale. The fledgling witches at the boarding school are the last gasp of a dying breed, and Fiona’s got them in her claws just as Lalaurie held her slaves. Like I said, it’s a theme that works in theory, but everything else about this season is problematic.
If you haven’t noticed, I have a love-hate relationship with AHS. I love the female-ness of the show—I’m all for keeping Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, and Jessica Lange on screen forever and ever—but the men who created it are also a large part of what I hate. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a tendency to try out everything that looks cool, regardless if it’s necessary or to the show’s detriment. I love the changing stories of each season, but the novelty wears thin quickly when it falls into the same ruts and scare tactics. I love the location and themes—New Orleans! haunted house! murderous insane asylum! evil witches!—but the show never goes beyond a superficial reference. I love the actors but absolutely loathe their characters and their acting choices. I love how it’s so utterly batshit crazy, but if I’m going to devote 13 hours of my life to it, there has to be something more than just that. By the time this review is posted, I’ll probably have already given up on AHS yet again.
I’m also not terribly thrilled with the way Murphy and Falchuk are handling race relations. Gabourey Sidibe’s character (who, I’m assuming, is a nod to NOLA band Lil’ Queenie & the Percolators) opens practically every sentence with ‘Girl,’ as if she’s some hot white chick’s black friend in some late-90s RomCom. Plus, (possible) minotaur sex. I don’t think they intentionally meant to dredge up that old racist stereotype of black men as savage beasts with an unquenchable sex drive, but nevertheless. Not to mention Marie Laveau running a hair salon called ‘Cornrows.’ Speaking of voodoo, It’s a practice and belief system that has gotten the short end of the stick for centuries, much of that tied into racism, and Murphy/Falchuk aren’t helping matters any. And, of course, slavery.
TL;DR: If you’ve liked it thus far, you’ll probably continue to do so.
The Road So Far: The Originals (CW Tues 8p)—so creatively named because they are the original vampires—is a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries set around the Mikaelson clan of three vampires created by magic, one of whom is also a werewolf. The Originals are impervious to their sires’ vampire magic, which works out great for them and not so great for the minions and humans afflicted by it. Polished siblings Rebekah and Elijah and their crasser younger brother Niklaus return to New Orleans 300 years after they help found it, ostensibly to look after Klaus’ unborn child and its mother, werewolf Hayley. Klaus mostly cares about retaking his city from Marcel, his own sire and the boy he raised after rescuing him from a brutal slave master. Marcel is using a powerful young witch to control the rest of the local coven, and the witches retaliate by holding Hayley and the baby in magical hostage as an attempt to force The Originals to defeat Marcel’s gang. Nothing goes according to plan, and it turns out the plan isn’t even the real plan, or the only one at that. The whole thing is overly complicated to say the least.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I tend to duck in and out of The Vampire Diaries. Usually I’ll watch the first few episodes of a new season, get distracted, then forget it’s on until the mid-season premiere. Then I pick it back up for a few more episodes before dropping it again because I have no clue what’s going on or who those randos are and why there are doppelgängers messing up the joint. Clearly I missed the backdoor pilot last season which introduced The Originals because when I tuned in I was lost from the get-go. However, once the show starts its introductions, it repeats them over and over and over again. When the mythology starts building, it’s all the viewer can do to keep up. And just wait until you see episode 5, which is basically 42 minutes of endless backstory on every character ever seen on screen.
Like AHS, The Originals seems to think New Orleans consists entirely of the French Quarter, the Saint Louis cemeteries, voodoo, and the bayou. I mean, it’s not like it’s a city of more than a million people with vast and varied ethnic, economic, and spiritual histories living in 13 distinct districts on both sides of the Mississippi River. Every time one of the witches says they can’t practice any magic in the Quarter, I wonder why they don’t pop over to the Ninth Ward or Algiers or Lakeview or Uptown or ANYWHERE ELSE BUT THE TOURIST CENTER OF NEW ORLEANS. To give credit where credit’s due, at least they haven’t tried to link the coven to voodoo. In fact, I don’t think voodoo has ever been mentioned except in the names of tourist-trap magic shops on Bourbon Street. The show doesn’t drag down voodoo with its silliness.
And yet...I can’t stop watching. There’s something intriguing about it. The Originals isn’t a show I’d reschedule my social life around (that honor rests with Parks & Recreation, Supernatural, and Hannibal), but I’d be rather put out if I missed an ep. At times it’s boring and uninspired, but it’s also calculating in a decades-spanning soap opera kind of way. Perhaps that’s why I like the show. I was raised on a steady diet of One Life to Live and All My Children, so it’s complicated-not-complicated mythology and overly theatrical melodrama are well-trod territory for me. It takes a few episodes to find its feet, but once it does it settles into a steadily enjoyable show. The writers never back away from letting Klaus be an asshat, but they also make it clear that he isn’t necessarily evil. Morality, character, and ethics aren’t black and white in this world but gray. Sometimes asshats do good things, and sometimes good people do asshat things. They aren’t trying to make Klaus grow into a better person or blacken Cami’s soul; they simply let the characters be. Although I wish they didn’t let them talk so much.
TL;DR: This one takes a bit to get going. If the premiere doesn’t hook you, jump to the 4th and 5th. If you still aren’t sold, there’s nothing I can do to convince you otherwise.
The Road So Far: Despite the name, Sleepy Hollow (FOX Mon 9p) is so loosely based on Washington Irving’s famous short story that it might as well be an independent creation with coincidentally similar names. Ichabod Crane is an Oxford professor of history who is sent abroad to spy on the American revolutionaries clamoring for independence, then does a Benedict Arnold and teams up with George Washington and his Bible. He marries Katrina, a comely local girl who also happens to be a witch, and probably not the Glenda kind. Washington and his Bible commission Ichabod to defeat the Hessian, aka one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Ichabod beheads the baddie but gets himself killed for his trouble—and does some super gross blood swapping while he’s at it. This somehow binds his soul to the Headless Horseman, leading Katrina to do a Rip Van Winkle spell on her beloved for reasons that make absolutely no sense. Ichabod wakes up 250 years later when someone else raises HH. Revelations partners him up with the most kick-ass female cop this side of Det. Kima Greggs. They battle various and sundry Monsters of the Week while uncovering the secrets and lies of those around them.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: When the show premiered, I fell in love, albeit with several reservations. It suffered (and, to some extent, still does) from an almost debilitating case of Infodump-itis, which was entirely the result of an overly and needlessly complicated mythology. It walks the edge of being of being sustainable and collapsing under the weight of its frivolousness. Its creators, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, are known for crafting poorly-structured, ludicrously-written shows that seethe with possibilities but never manage to score higher than brain candy.
And make no mistake, Sleepy Hollow is brain candy. It is not a good show, but it’s settling in to be a thrilling one as long as you don’t think too hard. It is also one of the craziest things on air, a point that marks the dividing line between those who think it’s the best new show on television and those who don’t. That second group is wrong and they should feel bad. The show is definitely insane, but you’ll either take that as audacious and wildly entertaining or as asinine and nonsensical. The show exists happily in both states, and I hope it never changes.
What it does do well is everything beyond the storytelling. The actors are impressive, and they elevate the material to such great heights. Sleepy Hollow is clearly one of those shows that is entirely reliant on its cast. Like Hannibal, for that matter. Put any other cast, any other crew, any other showrunner or writers in place of the ones there now and the show bombs spectacularly. Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison (and everyone else) ground the off-the-rails fantasy elements and handle the depth of character the script hasn’t yet figured out. Speaking of Hannibal, Sleepy Hollow is giving it a run for its money in terms of monster makeup. The creatures they’ve come up with are grotesque without being gross. The show uses its FX budget wisely and strategically.
TL;DR: Orlando Jones is single-handedly leading the good ship Craving. This is awesome.
Witches of East End
The Road So Far: Julia Ormond and her sister Mädchen Amick are cursed witches; the latter has nine rapidly diminishing lives and the former must forever give birth to her two daughters only to watch them die from magic. This time around, Ormond opts to keep her daughters’ powers from them, and they’ve survived into their early- to mid-twenties with nary a spell. Until their mother’s shapeshifting nemesis rolls into town. Said nemesis wants to destroy Ormond’s cursed, immortal life and uses her daughters against her. There’s also the standard love triangle between Handsome Boring Dudebro #1 and Handsome Boring Dudebro #2, who, of course, just happen to be brothers. Witches (Lifetime Sun 10p) is ostensibly based on the book by Melissa de la Cruz, but with the key difference that the TV Beauchamp girls don’t know they’re witches (at least not in the pilot).
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Oh, Witches of East End. You had the potential to be so good and an equal if not greater potential to be so campily bad. It’s unfortunate, then, that you went for option C: perfunctory. After 3 episodes, I still can’t decide who cares less about this show, the creators, the network, the stars, or the production crew. The acting from everyone but Amick and Ormond varies from high school drama class to “maybe if I practice my pouting/brooding they won’t notice I don’t know what I’m doing.” In Rachel Boston’s case I suspect her talent is hampered by the too-dull-to-even-roll-my-eyes script. I can’t fathom what could’ve inspired Ormond and Amick to sign on; either they know something we don’t about where this show is headed or they were offered a truck full of money. The men are about as charming as a cardboard cutout of Tom Hiddleston, which makes the already forcefully welded on love triangle even less interesting. And the cinematography, oh, the cinematography. I’ve seen better editing from first semester film school students using iMovie.
If Witches was the only show of its kind this season, I’d probably stick with it, if for no other reason than to sate my fantasy/magic desires. As it stands, there are at least a dozen other shows covering similar ground that are much better—or much crazier. Heck, if the romance was even a touch bit sexier or interesting I’d keep watching now. Although all of its elements are right up my alley, it adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. It’s a solid C show, but in a television landscape filled with Bs and As, I don’t have the time, energy, or attention span to waste on mediocrity. It’s like the diluted, defanged, de-budgeted basic cable knockoff of Practical Magic minus everything that made the movie entertaining if insipid.
TL;DR: If you think Sleepy Hollow’s mythology is too complicated, AHS too scary, Supernatural too male, and The Vampire Diaries too sexy, then have I got the show for you!
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.