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American Gothic: The Complete Series (1995)

Review

Author
Date
12-02-2005
Comments

Sam Raimi has put his stamp of executive producer approval on a vast number of television series - most of them very silly (Cleopatra 2525, anyone?). Of all of these programs, perhaps the most worthy is the short-lived American Gothic. Airing on CBS in the 1995-96 season, the show ably explored the problematic relationship between good and evil, posing some incisive questions despite some narrative muddle.

Creator Shaun Cassidy has jokingly referred to the show as Touched by Satan, and it really is. Average people living their lives in the tiny South Carolina town of Trinity make morally questionable deals with the devilish, charming Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) and pay the price for it by episode's end. Additionally, there's an ongoing plot about Buck attempting to guide his illegitimate son Caleb (Lucas Black) into his evil heritage. It's a bit like watching the spawn of Picket Fences and the darkest, most ironic episodes The Twilight Zone, and it works -- most of the time.

Hazy character relationships and missing plot context muddle the overall narrative of American Gothic's one and only season. Characters will be very close in one episode and disdainful of each other the next without proper explanation. Major plot turns are summarily ignored as if nothing had happened. Some of this can be explained by the fact that CBS didn't air four episodes and showed the rest out of order. Universal's DVD tacks the "lost" episodes onto the last disc instead of dropping them back into their proper place in continuity (a la Fox's Firefly: The Complete Series). Still, even that doesn't completely explain the unfortunate narrative inconsistency of American Gothic.

However, it's from a thematic standpoint that American Gothic really stands out. Show creator Shaun Cassidy (Invasion), working with such names as Stephen Gaghan (the film Traffic) and David Kemper (Farscape), makes a strong point -- if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, what's the road like when your intentions are Pure Evil? Sheriff Buck does horrifying things, sure, but crime is nearly nonexistent in Trinity. Also, as Buck is quick to point out, people always have a choice, and it's hardly his fault that they choose their own damnation.

Conversely, "good" tends to be self-righteous and narrow-minded, as shown in Heaven's avatar in the show Meryle (Sarah Paulson), the spirit of Caleb's dead half-sister and an avenging angel in all meanings of the term. In one crucial episode, she rains plague down upon any who have dealt with Buck, killing innocents in an attempt to bring down the Sheriff's reign. In another, it's revealed that she would rather see Caleb dead than even potentially corrupt. Where Buck's preferred modus operandi is manipulation of free will, Meryle likes to rattle windows and slam doors like a supernatural bully.

Such a battle would make it impossible to side with one or the other, if it weren't for Cole's enticing performance as the man who might be the devil himself. With a genial smile and a dangerously affable bearing, Cole keeps the focus firmly nailed on Sheriff Buck, whether he's on-screen or not. His savvy is supernatural -- he rarely does any overt contemplation, but that's because he's already five steps ahead of his prey (and they die, horribly, in step four). It's hard not to root for him -- the apple he offers is shiny and delicious-looking; who wouldn't take it? Cole sells the show even when it's not selling itself, and that is talent.

Universal collects all 22 episodes of American Gothic in a three disc set (each double-sided disc holds 7-8 episodes), presented in the order they originally aired (rather than the writer-preferred order). Many episodes come with rough cuts of extended or deleted scenes and the pilot features commentary by Shaun Cassidy and producer David Eick. Except for the unfortunate use of double-sided discs (never a sign of the releasing studio's respect for the product), it's not a bad package for such a thought-provoking series.

Genre television has made huge leaps since American Gothic first aired, with contributions like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and the new Battlestar Galactica all upping the ante. By comparison, this Devil-went-down-to-Dixie series can seem almost quaint. It had serious intent, however, and some great philosophical threads running through it. American Gothic stands as a marker of where fantasy in television was heading, and for that alone its worth a view.

Trivia: 

Creator Shaun Cassidy sold CBS on the series by acting out the "Someone's at the Door" sequence from the pilot.

Comments

I totally forgot about

I totally forgot about American Gothic, can't believe that was like 15 years ago. 

It's a really great show --

It's a really great show -- flawed but great. I need to rewatch it sometime soon.

"He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!"

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