Forget eye of newt. With a record-breaking premiere audience of 5.5 million viewers, Coven, the witch-centric third season of FX's American Horror Story franchise, is casting a spell on viewers. And no wonder: It's campy, creepy and "the cast is completely off the hook," says executive producer Tim Minear, who sums up the show's ability to attract major star power in two words: "Ryan Murphy."
The man behind Glee and Nip/Tuck has always been able to pack his shows with flashy guest stars, and this time Murphy has hit the diva lode. In addition to AHS repertory players Jessica Lange, Taissa Farmiga, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy and Sarah Paulson, he's beefed up his company with Academy Award winner Kathy Bates and nominees Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe, Broadway goddesses Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole, and young Hollywood It Girl Emma Roberts for this tale of transplanted Salem descendants tangling with Southern voodoo priestesses. Toss in some bayou wackadoos, deadly sex, the Frankenstein-like resurrection of a dismembered frat boy (Evan Peters) and one demented butler (Denis O'Hare) and you have a steamy supernatural gumbo worthy of its New Orleans locale.
"I knew I wanted to do witches, but I didn't want to do it in Salem," admits Murphy, who set last season's American Horror Story: Asylum in New England. "We thought about it briefly," he notes, "[but] to be quite honest, it's just because Jessica kept saying, 'I need to shoot in New Orleans. I want to do it in New Orleans.' So I had to make that work."
As his main muse, the two-time Oscar winner got what she wanted. Unlike Season 1's suburban bigot Constance or Asylum's nutjob nun Sister Jude, Coven's Fiona Goode is an aging, coke-snorting Supreme Witch — "the world's biggest liberal," says Murphy — with sartorial style to burn. "That is what I pitched her," he continues. "And I think she particularly loved that she got to wear Saint Laurent heels."
Minear concurs that this entire season is soaked in "scary glamour," joking that he expects it to win big points with the demographic most likely to fawn over a cabal of fierce fashionistas behaving badly. "Some gay porn isn't as gay as our show!" But he quickly adds that this is not RuPaul's Hag Race. "We're not lightening it up...it's still American Horror Story. There is definitely some grisly."
Swirling around Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in the heart of the French Quarter, Coven has so far been an audacious, addictive mix of the soapy and the sinister. The long-MIA Fiona's return to New Orleans is rattling some old skeletons and leaving most folks less than jazzed to see her again. Especially the students (Roberts, Sidibe, Farmiga and Jamie Brewer), who are dealing with all sorts of issues related to their budding abilities.
"We researched a lot about the Salem witches, and some of the girls back then were diagnosed as actually having had these powers," says Murphy. Like Farmiga's Zoe and her deadly bedside manner? "The ability to f--- someone to death actually was a power!"
Thankfully, it isn't the girl's only gift. "She's getting to develop some slightly more normal abilities, if you can call anything witchy normal," says Farmiga with a laugh, adding that her newly minted sorceress's increasing powers could be bad news for Fiona. "When the new Supreme starts to rise, the old Supreme gets weaker," she reveals. "Fiona is starting to notice that and needs to figure out what is going on... Each [of the girls] seems to have her moment in the spotlight, but you never know who it could be." Hint: It won't be the one who met an untimely demise in Episode 3. — Additional reporting by Rob Moynihan
For more on American Horror Story: Coven, check out this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, available on digital devices on Thursday, Oct. 24!