American Gothic: The Complete Series
February 6, 2006
Peter O’Fallon, James A. Contner, Lou Antonio, Mike Binder, ,
Starring: Gary Cole, Jake Weber, Paige Turco, Brenda Bakke, Sarah Paulson, Lucas Black, Nick Searcy, John Mese, Christopher Fennell, Alex Van,
American Gothic was the victim of lousy timing. When it debuted on network TV in 1995, it arrived too late to ride on the coattails of Twin Peaks’ success and too early to ride the wave of popularity of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It also faced fierce competition from The X-Files which ultimately won out sending American Gothic and the underrated X-Files wannabe Dark Skies into pre-mature cancellation.
Gothic was the brainchild of ‘70s pop icon Shaun Cassidy who was clearly influenced by David Lynch when he made this show as evident by the opening credits of small-town America accompanied by ‘50s era rock ‘n’ roll music. In fact, a lot of the show is scored with twangy guitars evoking Angelo Badalamenti’s memorable score, including one song in the “Pilot” episode that rips off “Cool Cat Walk” from Badalamenti’s score for Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). However, as much as Cassidy is influenced by Lynch his show is also steeped in the rich tradition of southern gothic horror in the vein of William Faulkner’s prose.
On the night of Caleb’s (Black) tenth birthday, his disturbed sister Merlyn (Paulson) has an episode that sends their father into a murderous rage. While Caleb runs to get help, his father strikes Merlyn down with a shovel. Before he can finish her off, Sheriff Buck (Cole) steps in and arrests the man only to then finish the job by breaking Merlyn’s neck when no-one is looking (except for a nervous deputy). From that point on he takes a keen interest in the young boy as a possible protégé. However, the new town doctor, Matt Crower (Weber) and Caleb’s cousin Gail (Turco) look out for the boy and protect him from the malevolent sheriff.
American Gothic is anchored by the strong performances of Gary Cole and Lucas Black. Both bring a fascinating intensity to their respective roles. Cole’s Sheriff Buck seems like a genial sort, the epitome of Southern hospitality but underneath lurks a malicious nature that the actor plays up so well. It’s a juicy role that Cole sinks his teeth into with gusto. You can tell he must’ve had a blast with this role from the little things he does, like in one scene where he whistles the theme from The Andy Griffith Show on the way to torment Caleb’s dad rotting in jail. His southern sheriff is an obvious riff on Robert Mitchum’s monstrous preacher from The Night of the Hunter (1955) but fleshed out over the course of the season.
For such a young actor, Lucas Black displays an incredible sensitivity – especially in the scenes where he copes with his sister’s death. He also brings a surprising conviction to the scenes where his character confronts Cole’s demonic sheriff. Based on his work in this show, Black went on to other strong performances in Sling Blade (1996) and, ironically, an episode of The X-Files.
Jake Weber and Paige Turco are fine if not a little on the bland side playing the good guys (interestingly, Weber left partway through the run of the show). They just don’t get the juicy dialogue that Cole does as he is clearly the heart and soul of the show.
Like Lynch did with Twin Peaks, Cassidy explores the incestuous-like secrets that plague a small-town. In an amusing running joke, it seems that almost everyone owes Sheriff Buck a favour in what were probably some kinds of Faustian pacts. The show never spells out what these were but only presents them as little asides when Buck greets a passerby on his way to somewhere else.
When American Gothic aired the network had no idea how to market its funky blend of horror and magic realism and moved it around, showed episodes out of order and basically insured that no one but the dedicated few would stick with it. At the time people only wanted to see cop shows (NYPD Blue), sitcoms (Seinfeld) or medical shows (ER) and so it died an early death. But Cassidy has persisted and surfaced this year with a new genre show called Invasion, a modern take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It too focuses on a small-town filled with dark secrets. So far, this show has been a success so at least Cassidy’s timing has improved.
NOTE: Universal has not presented the episodes of the show in the order that they were intended to be viewed. Here is the correct order to watch them in: 01. Pilot, 02. A Tree Grows in Trinity, 03. Eye of the Beholder, 04. Damned if You Don’t, 05. Potato Boy, 06. Dead to the World, 07. Meet the Beetles, 08. Strong Arm of the Law, 09. To Hell and Back, 10. The Beast Within, 11. Rebirth, 12. Ring of Fire, 13. Resurrector, 14. Inhumanitas, 15. The Plague Sower, 16. Doctor Death Takes a Holiday, 17. Learning to Crawl, 18. Echo of Your Last Goodbye, 19. Strangler, 20. Triangle, 21. The Buck Stops Here, 22. Requiem.
Each disc features a variety of deleted and extended scenes for various episodes.
A real treat for fans is an audio commentary for the “Pilot” episode by Shaun Cassidy and producer David Eick. It’s been ten years since they have seen this episode so it’s a trip down memory lane for both of men. At the time they were very conscious of the look of their competition – The X-Files – and opted for a classic, In Cold Blood (1967)/William Faulkner look/vibe. They point out all the cast who have since gone on to greater success and joke (sort of) about the troubles they had and the pressures imposed on them by the network who clearly did not understand what they were trying to do.