Poor Grant Wood. Imagine being the artist responsible for “American Gothic,” a guy who just wanted to evoke the simple charms of Middle America, only have his painting serve as an inspiration for a slew of middling-to-terrible horror shows and movies.
One wonders what the late painter would have thought of CBS’ latest “American Gothic” (which is completely unrelated to the series that aired for a season on the network in 1995). It’s no masterpiece, but it does share Wood’s theme of simplicity, in the sense that the new show is as standard as they come. It revolves around the tale of a rich and powerful Boston family that may have a serial killer in its moneyed ranks. Unlike the earlier show, this summertime filler has no supernatural elements. Neither are there any outlandish or memorable characters, nor a single indication within the first two episodes that the 13-part journey is worth following to the end. With the right execution, the new show could have been a fun summer diversion, but in its initial installments, it features a ponderous plot built around a drab mystery.
Even if they are a collection of unimaginative characters, the Hawthornes do have a stunningly decorated house, which is chock-a-block with the sort of clichés one would expect from a daytime soap opera — mainly in the form of secrets, lots of secrets.
That each member of the family might be married or related to a murderer is inconvenient for different reasons. Alison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance) is the clan’s resident politician and a mayoral candidate. Her brother Cam (Justin Chatwin) is a successful syndicated cartoonist who has distanced himself and his son, Jack (Gabriel Bateman), from his troubled ex, Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas).
Tessa (Megan Ketch) is the resident sweetheart who just wants the family to be closer, and who happens to be married to a Boston police detective (Elliot Knight). Family matriarch Madeline (Virginia Madsen) radiates blue-blooded propriety and is conscious of maintaining appearances, as is her husband, Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan).
Problems arise when an accident linked to Mitchell’s construction business reveals evidence related to a famous murderer dubbed the Silver Bells Killer, a case that’s been inactive for 14 years. Coincidentally, that’s about the length of time as the family’s black sheep, Garrett (Antony Starr), has been away.
The brooding Garrett resurfaces and behaves as if he’s a few pages short of a manifesto, immediately raising everyone’s suspicions. Viewers who were fans of Starr’s work on the Cinemax noir series “Banshee” may be entertained by the immediate sartorial similarities between Garrett and Starr’s previous character, Lucas Hood. But the parallels end there, because even the squirrel-eating Garrett isn’t all that compelling. None of the Hawthornes is particularly exciting to watch, actually – not even little Jack, a kid whose obsession with morbidity is meant to be chilling, but mostly just makes him annoying.
“American Gothic” eventually reveals itself to be a pedestrian murder mystery that slowly dies on the vine for want of interesting characters. This is no fault of the actors, most of whom have demonstrated their talent in far better work or, at least, in shows that were more exciting to follow. But sentimental attachment to the cast’s past performances isn’t enough to carry this series.
Does Alison suppress evidence linking the family to Silver Bells for reasons unrelated to her ambition? Is Cam, a recovering addict, secretly self-medicating a well-hidden murderous impulse? Is Tessa’s gentle façade hiding a grave evil? These potentially intriguing queries pale before a question that begins to dwarf the others: How does a rich family living in a house this huge fail to have the foresight to employ a butler they could frame?
Much in the way that most summertime series fade from our memory before the leaves begin to turn, “American Gothic” is likely destined to be forgotten. Let’s hope that the next project with the title aspires to do better. Otherwise, Wood himself would be justified in bringing along a few torch carriers with his pitchfork.