Universal // 1996 // 1002 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // November 9th, 2005
Someone's at the door.
It's been ten years since former Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy astonished TV viewers by creating the eerie supernatural drama American Gothic. Who would have guessed that such deliciously morbid impulses dwelled in the man who had brought the bubblegum pop song "Da Do Ron Ron" to the Billboard charts? This was a show that was original, unique, instantly addictive. In other words, headed for cancellation.
During its sole broadcast season I had a standing date with American Gothic, and I still remember my outraged dismay when, week after week, CBS preempted episodes or re-aired old ones -- before canceling the series altogether. I wasn't alone in my devotion to the series: In the decade since it was so rudely booted from network television, a passionate cult following has grown up around the show, creating numerous fan sites and petitioning for the series' release on video or DVD -- and at last that wish has been granted. If you are one of American Gothic's followers, you don't need me to tell you how terrific this series is. If you missed out on it before, get ready to be hooked.
Trinity, South Carolina may seem like your average small Southern town, but Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole, Office Space) isn't your average lawman. This smooth-talking devil has an uncanny way of knowing everyone's deepest secrets and desires, and he never hesitates to use the power that knowledge gives him. Life in Trinity has a way of turning out very, very badly for those who don't cooperate with Sheriff Buck. "For those who follow my lead, life can be a paradise," he says. "But for those who don't, it can be a mighty rough road."
Young Caleb Temple (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, Friday Night Lights) is about to discover for himself just how powerful the sheriff can be. On the night of Caleb's tenth birthday his father has a breakdown and attacks Caleb's childlike sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson, Serenity), and the resulting tragedy leaves Caleb temporarily on his own in the world. Sheriff Buck determines to take Caleb under his wing and mold the boy in his own image. But Caleb has a will of his own and wants to choose his own path, and he soon finds an ally in his cousin Gail Emory (Paige Turco, The Agency), who arrives in Trinity to confront her own tragic past. With the otherworldly guidance of Merlyn's spirit and the sympathetic interest of Matt Crower (Jake Weber, Dawn of the Dead ), a northern doctor with some personal demons of his own, he tries to resist the temptations that the sheriff holds out to him. But it so happens that Caleb is Lucas Buck's natural son, and he may take after his father more than he wants to admit...
There has never been another television show quite like American Gothic, which is part of the reason its followers are so passionate about it. As soon as we see rivulets of blood form the message "Someone's at the door," we know we've departed from the standard family drama. Beneath the accouterments of the horror genre, though, the series is a combination of coming-of-age story and morality play. As Caleb explores the shadowy corners of his town, learns about the nature of evil, and begins to form a value system, a series of Faustian bargains unfolds between the sheriff and the people of Trinity. The series is also a kind of warped supernatural twin to The Andy Griffith Show. (There are a number of sly nods to this parallel, such as when Sheriff Buck whistles the earlier show's theme song as he is going about some nefarious business.) Trinity is what Mayberry, North Carolina might have been like if genial Sheriff Taylor had wielded his knowledge of human nature with ruthless self-interest and a vicious sense of irony -- plus the help of dangerous otherworldly forces.
Atmosphere is key to the series, and by filming in Wilmington, North Carolina the filmmakers established an authentic Southern feel and grounded the more fantastical story elements in concrete reality. The distinctively creepy flavor is no doubt due -- at least in part -- to the presence among the show's producers of Sam Raimi (director of the Evil Dead and Spider-Man films). The humid Southern days and nights are rife with skin-crawling dread, gallows humor, and seething passions and grudges, but also moments of transcendence. Emotions are heightened by a vivid, even flamboyant, visual style: There's a penchant for extreme camera angles and dramatic lighting effects, not to mention lots of "boo" moments. Network television has become much more explicit in the past ten years, but in its day American Gothic pushed the envelope in terms of blood, violence, and shock. At the same time, the writing always prevented the series from descending into pure pulp; the characters are compelling, and we care about the decisions they make and the consequences they will face. Even Merlyn, the dead character -- make that the major dead character -- still grows, changes, and develops over the course of the series. You may notice the eerie atmosphere and distinctive visuals first, but you'll be drawn in by the characters and their stories.
As the characters at the heart of the series' conflict between good and evil, innocence and experience, Lucas Black and Gary Cole are ideal; it's impossible to imagine the show working without either one of them. Black is one of the most charismatic child actors I've ever seen, and he convincingly brings to life the many facets of Caleb, from his vulnerability and intelligence to his potential for cold-blooded evil. The series demands a lot of him as a leading man, and he shoulders the load with astonishing capability. As his father figure and corruptor, Gary Cole is captivating. Cole has a wide array of roles under his belt, in projects ranging from The Brady Bunch Movie to A Simple Plan to Crusade, but his performance as Lucas Buck really showcases his considerable talents. He plays the sheriff as easygoing and charming, with a sense of (often ghoulish) humor and a relish for his work -- but even think of crossing him, and he reveals the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. Even as we recognize him for what he is, it's almost impossible not to find him attractive -- and that makes him a formidable force indeed. It's rare to see the seductive quality of evil portrayed so believably, and I'm still puzzled that this performance didn't catapult the chameleonic Cole into much higher-profile roles.
The supporting cast turns in excellent work as well. Nick Searcy (Fried Green Tomatoes), as Lucas's harried deputy Ben, engages our sympathy as a basically good but weak man whose conscience struggles against his loyalty to (and fear of) his boss. Brenda Bakke, as the seductive schoolteacher Selena Coombs, Lucas's sometime mistress, positively smolders. With her husky drawl and sleepy eyes she's reminiscent of a classic screen siren; in fact, she appeared as Lana Turner in L.A. Confidential. But it's not Turner she resembles here so much as Gloria Grahame, in part because, like Grahame, she reveals a vulnerability that prevents her from being only a one-note temptress. One of the pleasures of American Gothic is the way it develops characters like these two by spotlighting them in different episodes, giving us a deeper understanding of them. "Potato Boy," for example, unaired during the original network run, gives us a poignant glimpse of Selina's back story and her loneliness, while "Dead to the World" shows Ben's frustration at having been replaced in the lives of his ex-wife and son. We quickly come to care about all the major characters, so we are invested in their struggles against (or alliances with) Sheriff Buck.
It's also fun to spot well-known faces in guest appearances. Followers of Sam Raimi's work will enjoy seeing Ted Raimi and especially Bruce Campbell, who has a noirish cameo in "Meet the Beetles." Alien's Veronica Cartwright makes a memorable appearance in "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday," and Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon of the Batman tetralogy) turns in a strong guest turn as a priest in "Inhumanitas." Other guest actors would later become familiar faces, like Arnold Vosloo, who went on to be the title character in Steven Sommers's Mummy films; Danny Masterson, later of That '70s Show and Dracula 2000; and N'Bushe Wright (Blade).
Universal has provided all 22 episodes of the sadly short-lived series on three dual-layer discs, each in an individual slim case. (Although the case touts the inclusion of four "unaired" episodes -- "Potato Boy," "Ring of Fire," "Echo of Your Last Goodbye" [my favorite title], and "Strangler" -- these episodes were all aired later on the Sci-Fi channel, so it's misleading to imply that they have never before seen the light of day.) Audiovisual quality for all the episodes is satisfying: Overall the picture is surprisingly clean and sharp, with only minor speckling. Although some scenes reveal substantial grain, the transfer is a solid one. Audio is listed as mono, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it has actually been rendered in a vigorous surround mix. Its breadth greatly enhances the aural landscape -- especially the eerie sound effects and the atmospheric music by Joseph LoDuca (Army of Darkness, Brotherhood of the Wolf). Those who watched the show in reruns on the Sci-Fi channel and recall some censoring of the language will be pleased that the dialogue is complete and unedited here.
It's great to see Universal depart from its usual procedure of releasing bare-bones TV sets and provide some extras for this long-awaited series. Nine episodes feature deleted and/or extended scenes, many of which flesh out the story lines and characters; in one instance we even discover an abandoned romantic subplot. These scenes are located with their parent episodes, rather than having been lumped together at the end of the set like the "unaired" episodes (which I'll return to in The Rebuttal Witnesses). Audiovisual quality is markedly inferior to that of the finished episodes, but they are still quite watchable. The other extra is a lively and illuminating commentary on the pilot episode by Shaun Cassidy and coproducer David Eick. The atmosphere is lighthearted, despite their tales of network interference and forced compromises. The two men josh each other a lot (and also the absent Sam Raimi) and bicker good-naturedly about interpretations of Buck's character, yet they also provide lots of insight into the show's genesis, influences, and filming. It's a great enhancement to the experience of the series and a very thoughtful gesture to the fans who have waited a long, long time for it to be released.
As happy as I am to see American Gothic finally come to DVD -- and make no mistake, I'm overjoyed -- I can't help resenting the way Universal has packaged it. I'm not speaking so much of the clumsy cover art (even though it does look like a half-hour's work by an intern just learning Photoshop) and the egregious errors in some of the case plot summaries as I am of Universal's refusal to put the episodes in their proper order. Not only do they preserve the mixed-up sequence of the original CBS broadcast, but they dump the four episodes that were unaired during the show's original run at the end of the set. When a series focuses so much on character development and relationships, it's unforgivable to scramble episode sequence. It was bad enough that CBS did this during the show's original run, since it created baffling continuity problems that were only rectified when the Sci-Fi channel re-aired the complete series. To preserve that gaffe on DVD is inexplicable -- particularly when Universal is perfectly aware of the series' intended order, which it helpfully provides on the DVD's official site (linked in the sidebar).
It's all the more important to view the episodes in their intended order because, unlike many short-lived TV series, American Gothic was able to create a complete story arc and resolve it by the final episode (as Eick observes on the commentary, "We knew we were dead early enough to plan our own funeral"). For those who desire to watch the series as it was meant to be seen, and avoid the extreme confusion caused by watching the episodes in their DVD sequence, here is the order that the episodes should appear in:
* "A Tree Grows in Trinity"
* "Eye of the Beholder"
* "Damned if You Don't"
* "Potato Boy"
* "Dead to the World"
* "Meet the Beetles"
* "Strong Arm of the Law"
* "To Hell and Back"
* "The Beast Within"
* "Ring of Fire"
* "The Plague Sower"
* "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday"
* "Learning to Crawl"
* "Echo of Your Last Goodbye"
* "The Buck Stops Here"
The double-sided discs may also give some viewers problems during play. A reviewer for another site noted that where four episodes were placed on one side, the fourth episode would hang up. I had the same problem with rental discs, but my screener set plays without any trouble, so this flaw may not be present in every copy.
My other complaint is a bit of a spoiler, so skip down to the Closing Statement if you want to preserve complete ignorance. I am still royally irritated by the elimination of Dr. Matt's character in favor of macho posturer Dr. Billy Peale. It's such a wrongheaded move that I had always suspected that network interference lay behind it, and the audio commentary confirmed my suspicion. Due in part to Jake Weber's nuanced performance, Dr. Matt is a complex person, flawed but intelligent and sympathetic, infinitely more interesting than his replacement, who comes off as an arrogant bully. When Dr. Matt and Lucas Buck butt heads, there is real tension; when the sheriff and Billy Peale get into a power struggle, I just want Lucas to crush Peale like a bug. I sorely miss Jake Weber's presence during the final third of the series.
Throw away those crummy bootleg DVDs from eBay; the real thing is here. After years of longing for the series to be released, I'm thrilled that it is available at last -- and that it still holds up as a gripping experience despite the intervening decade of increasingly sophisticated supernatural TV series. Of course, the flip side of revisiting American Gothic and rediscovering its excellence is that I am grieving all over again at its cancellation. And now that Lucas Black is in his early twenties (and appearing in films such as Cold Mountain and Jarhead), I suppose it's too late for the much-longed-for reunion movie to materialize. But now that the original series is finally available, I can live with that. Even if I have to keep hopping up from the sofa to switch discs in order to watch it properly.
The Universal executives in charge of disc packaging are remanded to the eternal custody of Sheriff Lucas Buck, who will make sure they get what they deserve. The makers of this fine series, however, are declared not guilty and are free to hightail it out of Trinity.
Review content copyright © 2005 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1002 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on Pilot by Series Creator Shaun Cassidy and Coproducer Dan Eick
* Deleted and Extended Scenes for Nine Episodes
* DVD Site
* Virtual Trinity