Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s funny that, just one year ago, you couldn’t watch an episodic whodunnit even if you wanted to. MTV’s Scream re-do was gearing up, and Scream Queens was a few months off, but the in-the-now murder mystery market was wide open. Cut to today, and now you can’t swing a bloody hatchet around your channel lineup without stumbling across something dark and sinister and mysterious, with conveniently plotted red herrings.
Enter: American Gothic, CBS’s newest stab at the genre, coming in not only on the heels of the two previously mentioned shows, but CBS’ own kinda-great, deeply underrated gem Harper’s Island from the bygone era of 2009. The new show has the setup you expect – there’s a giant house, a gaggle of suspects, a cold case of serial murders, a creepy groundskeeper, duh – but the execution lags behind its reach in the opening two hours. Its mystery is intriguing (enough) and a select few of its characters are teasingly peculiar (enough), but its lone apparent twist (the suspects are all in the same family!) generates drama that’s awkwardly similar to the dysfunctional discord of ABC’s forgotten-immediately The Family.
The family in American Gothic is similarly well-to-do. Dad Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan) runs a local concrete company, upon which he’s built a lavish Bostonian estate complete with greenhouse, arch-lit ceilings, creepy cellars, you name it. His wife, Madeline (Virginia Madsen), relishes the return of her close-nit family group when eldest daughter Alison (Juliet Rylance) aims to improve her city counsellor status with a bid for mayorship.
Which of course means skeletons come pouring out of closets soon enough; early on it’s in the form of rehab grandmaster Cam (Justin Chatwin), who has American Gothic‘s very own required Creepy Kid, Jack (Gabriel Bateman), and a flamed-out marriage with a drug addict. If a political run weren’t enough, the police department is shoehorned into the family with Brady (Elliot Knight), the husband of youngest daughter Tessa (Megan Ketch). It’s not hard to see where these dramatic entanglements and discord will go down the line.
Later, another prodigal son returns home in the form of Garret (Antony Starr), who’s been out of the picture for fourteen years and shows up in the nick of time to see his dad suffering at the whim of a shocking heart attack. And, whaddya know, a recovered clue from a tunnel collapse is reinvigorating everyone’s interest in the “Silver Bells Killer,” who just so happened to mysteriously vanish… fourteen years ago. Eventually Cam and Tessa discover a box of the SBK’s modus operandi in their own shed: a shoebox full of silver handbells, stashed away with newspaper clippings about the murders that are directly tied to Cam’s childhood artwork. Someone in the family – they assume whiplash fast, not taking the phonetic, grade-school advice of Brady’s annoying boss – must be the murderer.
Intrigue doesn’t exactly catch fire. The characters don’t elicit much drama because their circumstances feel so staid and overdone. Madsen is the stern mother hen who will do anything for her family, and Sheridan is the warm hug factory the kids ran to while running away from their mom. Not much dysfunction comes out of this setup because it itself is such a functionally expected cliché in this day and age of squabbling family dramas.
Likewise, the political angle is mostly sidelined for the first two hours, besides scenes where Alison reminds everyone to bury their secrets in the name of the family, and also her campaign, calling everything besides her potential mayorship “a November 6th problem.” An out-of-nowhere affair subplot doesn’t help, nor does the fact that the show gives Dylan Bruce, as her essentially mute-for-two-hours husband, less than nothing to do.
The Hawthorne family manor, in all its prim decor and twenty-foot kitchen window esteem, is simultaneously American Gothic‘s neatest trick and biggest disappointment. The sets give a sense of wealth and place and character, which help alleviate from the lack of actual characters roaming around the halls. It’s fun to discover each new room (most deemed “too extravagant” for a family interview by Alison’s campaign manager) and build up the Clue board in your head. But the show – and creator Corinne Brinkerhoff – fail to provide any fun, tactile pieces to move around that board. There’s also an uncomfortable lack of creepy/fun Gothic symbolism, most tragically in the show’s colorless tone, that makes it hard to justify the appropriation of its title.
If you look deeper, there are momentary glimpses into more clever genre fare to be had here, depending on how long you stick around. Although the overarching mystery of the Silver Bells Killer’s identity seems to be the push of the season’s 13 episodes, American Gothic remembers to have some fun with the utterly expected red herring or two (or three, etc). Garret’s 14-year wilderness retreat is cranked up to such ridiculous extremes (his only dietary restriction at his dad’s wake is “no squirrel”) that it’s hard not to see it as Brinkerhoff trying to infuse at least a slight sense of playfulness into the show. It’s got occasional style, too, like when Creepy Kid Jack (who wants to be a medical examiner when he grows up) asks to watch a veterinarian sew a cat’s tail back on, and the scene cuts to a close-up shot of Madeline aggressively sewing with knitting needles fast enough to make you flinch.
It’s simply too hard to disentangle such transient genre delights from the sheer weight of American Gothic‘s awkward pretensions. In honor, apparently, of its title – which also sounds like another frustrating American Horror Story/Crime Story/Crime lemming – the show’s episode titles reference famous paintings, classical music trills quietly away in the background, and the placid tone fails to make sense of occasionally (unintentionally?) hilarious moments, i.e. hearing the phrase “Silver Bells Killer” and “SBK” said aloud, frequently, and in serious conversation.
I’m happy – ecstatic, really – that murder mysteries and episodic slashers are gaining traction on the small screen. American Gothic is essentially only the former, and that’s okay, but it has yet to make any of its murders or mysteries either scary or compelling enough to justify sticking around and finding out the one thing it should have us all frothing at the mouth to discover: whodunnit?
A bit intriguing, a bit mysterious, but a lot bland, American Gothic's dull family does nothing to entangle you in their central mystery, nor emphasize the potential for macabre fun that the latter half of its title suggests.