'American Horror Story: Coven,' 'The Walking Dead' And Others Steal The Fall Season Spotlight
It’s been a challenging fall for the broadcast networks. Not that all the news during the first three weeks of the 2013-14 season has been bad; but other than “The Voice” powering NBC to No. 1 in the 18-49 demographic and “The Big Bang Theory” achieving record high ratings at the start of its seventh season on CBS there hasn’t been anything happening with any of them that comes close to the excitement that surrounded the series finale of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” That unforgettable episode came along on the first Sunday of the season and stole the spotlight away from everything that was scheduled that night (and, in fact, throughout premiere week) on the Big Four.
Meanwhile, since early September FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” has remained a pop-culture powerhouse Tuesdays at 10 p.m., even if the announcement that series lead Charlie Hunnam has been cast in the feature film adaptation of the best-seller “50 Shades of Grey” whipped up more attention in the media than the shocking storyline that kicked off the sixth season of the biker drama, which involved a disturbed little boy taking a gun to school and killing many of his classmates. I expected an unholy uproar from someplace or another when that episode was telecast, but all was comparatively quiet, perhaps because for all of its graphic sex and violence “Sons” is always a production of the highest quality.
If “Sons” had been the only basic cable series with the potential to steal the media spotlight these next few weeks I don’t think CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox would have had much to worry about. But then came the premiere this past Wednesday of FX’s aggressively adult thriller “American Horror Story,” this season tagged with the subtitle “Coven.” It didn’t simply do well in the ratings; it set a new record that night for the franchise (5.54 million total viewers, 3.87 million of them adults 18-49) and, as FX noted in a press release, ignited the possibility that it may become the highest-rated telecast in the history of the network once Live +7 numbers are factored in.
A performance like this might suggest the possibility of much media obsession in the weeks to come, but the content of the show should guarantee it. Other than a horror show about man-eating zombies – I’ll get to that one in a minute – what makes more sense than an engrossing, at times terrifying tale about witches being telecast during Halloween season?
Two things struck me about “Coven” during its premiere. First, with the exception of the tortured slaves in the attic flashback I didn’t find it as insanely over the top as virtually every episode last season of “AHS: Asylum.” Even the rapes at the frat house party and the hospital, though vile and disturbing, seemed strangely subdued by the standards this franchise has set for itself during its first two years. In some ways I think this restraint worked to its benefit. Too many shocks serve only to desensitize.
Second, although the “Coven” cast is multi-generational, the whole thing virtually spins around actresses of a certain age, including Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. Having veteran actresses at the center of its story doesn’t seem to have diminished the show’s allure to younger viewers. (Imagine trying to pitch a show starring “older” women to broadcast executives. “Yes, our show will have attractive young people in its cast, but our stars are two women over sixty!” How long would it be before the person pitching the pitch was pitched right out of the room?)
The degree to which Lange and Bates are contributing to the success of “Coven” shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, because young people have always enjoyed movies, television series, plays and novels about people older than themselves. How unfortunate that so many network and advertising executives have either forgotten that or are afraid to acknowledge it, for whatever reason. Thank goodness the executives at FX dared to go there. Just look at the results. (The same holds true for “Sons.” Two of its three leads are well into middle age, yet young people can’t get enough of this show.)Back to the business of basic cable stealing broadcast’s thunder: As potent as it has been, the collective media fuss over “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story: Coven” will likely be overshadowed by the return Sunday night of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the little zombie show that earlier this year topped every other scripted program on television among adults 18-49. Will it continue to munch on the competition and tower above all else? At this point only a fool would suggest otherwise.