Today, Sam Raimi is a heavy-hitter in Hollywood and it's not unusual to see his name on the blockbuster films that he himself directs (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2) or those that he produces (The Grudge, Boogeyman). But, back in 1995, Raimi was busy adding his stamp to genre television shows, such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. While those shows became cult hits which lasted several years, Raimi was also involved in some lesser-known programs like M.A.N.T.I.S. and American Gothic. And while it wasn't surprising to see Raimi's named linked to the latter show, which dealt with the odd happenings in a Southern town, it was eye-opening to note that the series was created by former teen-idol Shaun Cassidy, who is responsible for the current TV success, Invasion. American Gothic: The Complete Series has now come to DVD so that it can get the attention it deserves.
American Gothic takes place in the town of Trinity, South Carolina (which is a fictional setting, but its 29916 zip code would place it due west of Charleston and due north of Savannah). As the series opens, we witness an evening of devastating events, which set the story into motion. It's young Caleb Temple's (Lucas Black) birthday, and just as he's about to cut his cake, his sister, Merlyn (Sarah Paulson), who appears to be in a semi-catatonic state, begins to chant "There's someone at the door" over and over. This agitates their father Gage (Sonny Shroyer) who proceeds to hit Merlyn in the head with a shovel. Just as this occurs, Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) arrives with his fellow officers. As Caleb and Gage are led from the house, Lucas cradles Merlyn's head and then snaps her neck, killing her. This murder is witnessed by Buck's deputy, Ben Healy (Nick Searcy).
Now an orphan, Caleb is taken to the local hospital, where he meets and befriends Dr. Matt Crower (Jake Weber). Soon, Caleb's only living relative, his cousin, Gail Emory (Paige Turco), arrives in town. Gail has come to Trinity to look after Caleb, but she also wants to learn more about the deaths of her parents. Caleb begins to settle into his new life and as we follow him throughout Trinity, one thing becomes apparent: Sheriff Buck rules the town with an iron fist. He has his hands in everyone's business and most of the citizens are at his beck and call, most notably Selena (Brenda Bakke), the salacious school teacher. While the sheriff can be an intimidating or charming man, he appears to wield supernatural powers in order to get his way. Buck has an overwhelming interest in Caleb and as the story progresses, their dark connection is revealed.
American Gothic is a very interesting show, and although it is quite eccentric at times, it's easy to see how it would get the greenlight in 1995, as it has elements similar to both Twin Peaks and The X Files. Actually, American Gothic should have been called "Southern Gothic" as it really plays up it small-town, rural setting. Everyone in Trinity knows one another, and thus, they know one another's business, and the whole thing is overseen by Lucas Buck. This is mixed with an EC Comics meets The Twilight Zone angle, as many of the stories revolve around townspeople who have made choices to save themselves or better themselves and must then pay the consequences. (In most of these cases, it appears that those involved have sold their souls to Lucas Buck.) The show certainly contains supernatural elements, observed in Buck's odd powers and the Caleb's guardian angel, but the series focuses much more on the relationships between the citizens of Trinity and their dark secrets.
The show's stories get a huge boost from its cast. Gary Cole is outstanding as the enigmatic Lucas Buck. This is a man who can be both charismatic and scary and Cole plays both to the hilt. Cole does an excellent job of presenting Buck as a Southern gentleman who is in no way slow-witted. While his dialogue comes across as stilted at times, young Lucas Black is asked to carry much of the series and thus is quite good as Caleb. He must display many emotions throughout the course of the show and pulls most of them off admirably. Brenda Bakke becomes one of the more memorable characters as Selena, the wanton teacher who both yearns for and rejects true love. As the tortured Dr. Crower, Jake Weber's performance is both subtle and powerful. I did find Paige Turco's turn as Gail to be somewhat weak. While she's a gorgeous woman, I felt that she never gave her character a definitive voice.
American Gothic aired on CBS sporadically from September, 1995 to July, 1996, with 18 of its 22 episodes being shown (The other four would eventually air on Sci-Fi.), but it never gathered a substantial audience. As an indication of CBS's lack of faith in the show, the episodes weren't always aired in the correct order, which threw off the show's continuity. For example, there's an episode where a character clearly leaves the show for good, but two episodes later, he's back and is featured as the main character! The American Gothic: The Complete Series DVD set contains all 22 episodes of the show, but they are presented in the order which they were aired, with the four unaired episodes place on the final disc. I checked various sites around the internet and found some conflicting reports on exactly what order the shows should be viewed, as some reports differed from the actual episode numbers of the shows. In the end, I viewed the episodes in this order:
A Tree Grows in Trinity
Eye of the Beholder
Damned If You Don't
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
Of course, since the episodes aren't included on the DVDs in this order, this meant that I was constantly changing discs, which was a great hassle.
After watching all of the episodes of American Gothic in the supposed correct order, I came to this conclusion: the show is engaging and offers some great characters, but it simply never gels. The central story involving Caleb, Buck, Gail, Merlyn, Selena, Dr. Crower, and Ben is touched on in every episode, but it never advances very much. Instead we are treated to self-contained Twilight Zone-esque episodes in which the townspeople must answer to Lucas Buck for their past transgressions. These storylines range from interesting to completely boring. While these were going on, all that I wanted to do was to get back to Caleb and see his plotline progress. But, the show seems to insist on feeding us more and more examples of how evil (?) Buck is. And watching the show in the above order didn't really aid in the continuity, as American Gothic really refers to previous storylines or events, thus adding to the feeling that the main story arc grows at a snails pace. During this time, the show also commits the cardinal sin of making every character extremely flawed and unlikable, thus giving the viewer no one with whom they can relate. Given the show's history, the makers of American Gothic must have known that the series would end after one season, but the show doesn't offer a satisfying conclusion and leaves many questions unanswered. American Gothic is a fine example of daring television, as it offers a supernatural story in a southern setting complete with unique characters, but the main story gets lost in the shuffle and the show collapses under its own weight.
The American Gothic: The Complete Series DVD set contains 3 "flipper" discs which contain content on both sides. The episodes of the show are all presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I can't be sure if its the show's age or the fact that proper care wasn't taken in the preparation of this DVD release, but the video presentation really suffers at times, especially during the earlier episodes. The show itself is dark, but the image on these DVD is often overly dark. The image is riddled with defects from the source material, such as constant white specks and the occasional white line, some of which look like hairs! Many of the episodes contain noticeable grain, as well as artifacting effects. I found myself being distracted by the trails from moving characters at times. On the positive side, the image never looks washed-out and the colors are always bold on strong. I've read some reports of individuals having technical problems with these "flipper" discs, but all three played just fine for me.
The DVD set fares much better in the audio department. The episodes included here carry a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. This provides clear dialogue, with no indication of hissing or distortion. The dialogue is always audible and the musical score sounds fine. The front channels produced a nice bass effect during the show, heightening the mood during the intense scenes. The audio here wasn't overwhelming, but it's adequate for the show.
Essentially, this set contains two extras. Series creator/writer/producer Shaun Cassidy and producer David Eick provide commentary for the "Pilot". This is a fun talk, as they have especially vivid memories of the show considering that both confess that they haven't seen it since it originally aired. They talk about the creation of the show, Sam Raimi's involvement (including some funny Raimi anecdotes), and the support/interference received from CBS. The DVD also contains "Deleted/Extended Scenes" from the following episodes (the number in parentheses represents the number of scenes included): "Pilot" (1), "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday" (1), "To Hell and Back" (1), "Learning to Crawl" (1), "Triangle" (1), "The Buck Stops Here" (2), "Requiem" (1), "Ring of Fire" (3), and "Echo of Your Last Goodbye" (3). Most of these are extended versions of scenes which appear in the show, and few offer any new information.
Memory can be a very funny thing. I remembered watching American Gothic when it originally aired and really enjoying it. I also remember watching it with my wife, but as we weren't together when the show started, I was apparently wrong about that as well. The show acts as a nice milestone for those involved, such as Sam Raimi and Shaun Cassidy, and it does contain some memorable moments, but it hasn't stood the test of time very well.