If only “Twin Peaks” had never aired; if only “X-Files” wasn’t on a competing network; if only Stanley Kubrick hadn’t shown literate blood in “The Shining”; in short, if only there was one fresh idea evident, “American Gothic” might come off as a original and intriguing series. But nearly everything about this debuting other-worldly drama feels rehashed or misconceived. The Friday night “X-Files” audience may provide some initial sampling, but “Gothic” looks to have a morbid future.
Perhaps a short run would be for the best, at least as far as serving the needs of the story. Like “Twin Peaks”– memories of which are suggested repeatedly –“American Gothic” seems more suited to a limited run. The mood and visuals are too stylized, the music too self-conscious, the situations too ridiculous to sustain a mass audience over several seasons.
“Gothic” is set in a generic small town, the fictional Trinity, N.C. From the opening credit montage we see that it’s a neighborly place full of nice people. From Joseph LoDuca’s theme music and Ernest Holzman’s skewed camera, we can tell there’s something rotten underneath.
That rottenness centers around the town’s seemingly upstanding sheriff, Lucas Buck (Gary Cole, suggesting his earlier performance as Jeffrey McDonald, rather than Mike Brady), who is in fact the personification of evil. Neither wickedly fun nor compellingly creepy, the character is simply unpleasant, not a good quality for a series lead.
Cole does get one terrific scene, though: On his way to offing an inconvenient prisoner, Sheriff Buck walks through the jail whistling the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The evil sheriff is counteracted by the town’s handsome young doctor, Matt Crower (Jake Weber, in a largely bland perf), who is as pure as Buck is corrupt.
Basically, the series involves the battle of wills between these two, primarily over the fate of traumatized young boy Caleb Temple (a perpetually spooked Lucas Black), who seems to possess the same supernatural powers that infect others in town, including the sheriff.
Mysterious people appear, and phantasmic things happen, like blood that spells out warnings to Caleb. The town always seems to be both stormy and sunny, in the midst of simultaneous day and night and always utterly removed from the time-space continuum (is it set in the ’50s or the ’90s?).
Director Peter O’Fallon and writer-creator Shaun Cassidy probably want this to seem spooky and intriguing. Audienceswill be forgiven if they instead ascribe it to sloppy continuity.
The acting beyond the two leads is unrealistic and unconvincing, although some of the supporting roles are likely to be better drawn in subsequent episodes. The tech artists, on the other hand, prove at least accomplished at setting an unconventional mood.
CBS should be congratulated for trying something different, for actively going after a younger, hipper audience. Indeed, beneath this rather misguided effort is the sense of wanting to break out of the cops-and-robbers-and-lawyers mold. But “American Gothic” tries too hard — and misses by too much — to be remembered as much more than a sadly unsatisfying misstep.