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These days, cable television seems to be having a love affair with the supernatural—from True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to The Originals and The Walking Dead.

Well move over, bloodsuckers and flesh-eaters, there are new girls in town.

It’s about time someone focused on the feminine side of horror. Sure, there are lady vamps and zombies in those other shows, but the mythology behind them is fairly male. (Think classic Count Dracula seduction scenes.) This fall, however, two new series put the power in the hands of women: Lifetime’s The Witches of East End and American Horror Story: Coven on FX.

The Witches of East End is based on a popular series of novels by Melissa de la Cruz, an author best known for sexy, supernatural, young adult fiction. Although the new show is meant for an adult audience (there’s some violence, some sex, and a heaping helping of rather unnecessary nudity), you can see why it would appeal to teens. Two twenty-something sisters (one voluptuous and free-spirited, the other bookish and relatively plain) learn that their mother has been keeping a secret from them. As secrets go, it’s a whopper. They’re all witches (Gasp!) and now they have to learn to use their powers to save themselves from an evil “shifter” who wants to destroy them (Gasp! Gasp!).

All right, the story isn’t necessarily terrible (remember Charmed?). But add to it a rash of hokey special effects, a very sappy script, and costumes and sets that look  as if they were borrowed from Dynasty circa 1984, and taking Witches seriously presents a serious difficulty. Even the characters’ names are contrived. The wilder sister is named “Freya;” her fiancé, “Dash.” Really.

The Witches of East End is Wicca by way of Harlequin Romance, with bodices ripping, bosoms heaving, and handsome strangers whose long hair flows in the breeze as they passionately embrace you. (I knew we were in trouble when Dash’s long-lost brother Killian kissed Freya and sparks flew. Literally. The flowers behind them caught on fire.) All I can say is that it’s a shame Fabio wasn’t available. And for a show about women with powers, the early episodes have an inordinate number of damsels in distress.

The cast includes a number of pretty young things (Rachel Boston, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Eric Winter, Daniel DiTomasso), as well as some mid-career heavy-hitters. Julia Ormond is Joanna Beauchamp, the girls’ mother. She lives under a curse; she must give birth to her daughters, raise them, and watch them die, over and over, for eternity. Mädchen Amick is Joanna’s sister Wendy, also cursed; she lives half her life (or lives, nine of them) as a black cat. And Virginia Madsen plays Dash’s snobby mother, a bitch rather than a witch (or so we assume through episode two). One can only imagine that these more mature actresses didn’t realize what a piece of puff pastry the show would turn out to be. Or perhaps they’re enjoying all the silliness (enjoying it all the way to the bank, no doubt).

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If you’re looking for something with a little more bite, change the channel for a completely different experience. There is absolutely nothing silly about American Horror Story: Coven. The third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s original series is dark and gruesome. It has the same sharp writing and fine acting as its predecessors, American Horror Story: Murder House and American Horror Story: Asylum.

Coven takes place in New Orleans, and the setting is apt. As we learn early on, after the trials in Salem, where innocent mortals were accused and executed, the real witches fled New England, moving as far South as possible. Where better to hide than a place so mystically wrapped in voodoo and superstition? There, an elite finishing school was established to protect young witches and help them control (or, more importantly, hide) their powers. Witches are dying out, we learn (due to a combination of persecution and contraception). The school has only four students now: a telekinetic young movie star (Emma Roberts), a clairvoyant girl with Down Syndrome (Jamie Brewer), a “human voodoo doll,” who can torture others by hurting herself (Gabourey Sidibe), and newcomer Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), whose deadly power displays itself in the bedroom, earning her the nickname of “Black Widow.”

From the beginning, American Horror Story has been an ensemble undertaking. Murphy and Falchuk work with a large repertory cast, many of whom reappear in new roles this season. Returning actors include Farmiga and Brewer, as well as Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Dennis O’Hare, Lily Rabe, and Evan Peters. But the undisputed star of the show is Jessica Lange. She’s already won an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in the first season. This year, Lange is Fiona Goode, “the Supreme,” the one witch in a generation whose powers include and surpass all others’.

In Coven, Lange is joined by three other remarkable actresses: Academy Award winners Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, and Broadway legend Patti LuPone. The first two play controversial New Orleans historical figures. Bates is Madame LaLaurie, a nineteenth century slave owner and sadist (to this day, the LaLaurie mansion is described as the most haunted house in the French Quarter). Bassett is Marie Laveau, the most famous voodoo priestess of all time. And LuPone, who joined the cast in episode three, plays a contemporary fundamentalist Christian who unknowingly buys the house next door to the witch school.

The scenes between Lange, Bates, and Bassett crackle like fire and brimstone—and not just because of the subject matter. These grande dames are clearly relishing their roles and the chance to work with each other. Heaving bosoms of younger actresses be damned; there’s real power here!

Although each year of American Horror Story is a separate saga with unrelated characters, fans of the earlier seasons will recognize variations on themes. In each series, for example, there has been a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. The first year, an abortionist created new life from the fetuses he terminated. In the second, a former Nazi doctor experimented on mental patients to build monsters. And in Coven, two teenage witches build the perfect boyfriend from dismembered fraternity brother corpses. If this sounds funny, it’s not. In fact, this is one of many scenes not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Like Witches of East End, Coven has its share of violence and nudity. But be warned: The sex is not of the romance-novel variety. To date, in fact, it has included gang rape, writhing snakes, brain aneurisms, and a Minotaur. (And, by the way, that’s through episode two.) Clearly, American Horror Story: Coven isn’t for everyone. But if you can get past all of the above, it’s a brilliant piece of genuine horror, with powerful women (characters and actresses alike) very much at the center.

Despite their shared subject, the two series couldn’t be more different. One is a frothy prime-time soap opera. The other a dark psychological puzzle. You could say there’s something for everyone; it depends on your definition of “entertainment.”

Pretty or gritty, which witch is up to you.

 

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