Lucas Buck -
Merlyn Temple -
Caleb Temple -
Gail Emory -
Matt Crower -
Ben Healy -
Selena Coombs -
Boone MacKenzie -
Billy Peele -
OTHER DEVILISH SHOWS
Trinity is a small town in the midwest of America. It's also the home of Satan himself, or at least one of his demons. In the guise of the town sheriff, this malevolent force runs the town with a mix of charm, maipulation and brute force. He can seduce any woman he pretty much puts his mind to, but isn't above the odd spot of rape and murder when it's called upon and his grip upon those that truly know what he is never falters. Except now he has a son, a son that is his match, but who might not choose the same path. He sets out to twist the boy into his image, but is challenged in that by the Holy Trinity (that's got to be deliberate) of cousin Gail, Doctor Matt and dead sister Merlyn.
American Gothic was ambitious in its aim, but fell short in its execution. A depiction of the evil that lies in the heart of any community, it aimed to show that we generate the hate and suffering of our neighbours ourselves. We are the authors of our own downfalls. The problem is that the show didn't have the courage of its own convictions and too soon showed the sheriff to be evil incarnate, responsible for most everything.
That might still have worked, but Gary Cole wasn't able to convey the true appeal of evil, either the charm or the ugly side. He was too obvious and he didn't have the dialogue. He also had so much overwhelming visual nonsense in the early episodes that he was turned into a caricature from which he never recovered, and neither did the show.
And yet there are still moments of excellence. Requiem was the last episode of the run and was a stunner. The Plague Sower played with notions of right and wrong in a way that showed what the series could aspire to and Inhumanitas had a face-off between good and evil that was another highlight of the show. Sadly, the focus wasn't there and episodes like Meet the Beetles and The Strong Arm of the Law were just distractions. Characters that were initially compelling (Selena and Doctor Matt) got sidelined and finally four episodes weren't even shown in the first run of the show. Two of these would have helped with the patchy and inconsistent nature of the show and the behaviour of the characters in it.
American Gothic was always ambitious, often hysterical and rarely dull, but it never quite hit the heights that it was aiming at for long enough.Top
A mentally disturbed young woman is tragically murdered and her brother is taken into care at the hospital. The local sheriff, Lucas Buck, wants to take care of the boy, but the doctor on duty refuses. His initial inquiries cast doubt upon the sheriff's motives. The boy's cousin comes back to town and proves to have a history with Sheriff Buck and the dead girl then materialises in front of her brother with information about his relationship with the Sheriff.
American Gothic it's called and gothic it certainly is. It's also overheated and a bit hysterical. That might be because there is so much plot to get into the first episode. The sheriff is the centre of the show and everyone and everything revolves around him. He's a busy boy. By the end of this episode he's killed Merlyn and her father, blackmailed his deputy and been proven to have raped Caleb's mother as well as being prime suspect in the murder of Gail Emory's parents. Not bad for a first episode.
The camerawork is all canted angles to add to the general feverishness of this opening episode with moments such as the blood message on the door being fairly screamed at the audience. The pitch is full on from the very start where maybe a slow burn might have suited the story more. Still, there's more than enough plot to be going on with so it will be interesting to see what future episodes bring.
There's really too much going on to be able to judge the players, but Lucas Black makes an impression as suddenly bereaved Caleb.Top
A TREE GROWS IN TRINITY
The search is still ongoing for Caleb, who discovers a strange creature in an abandoned house that turns out to be a mute, shattered prisoner who once was a journalist sent to Trinity to investigate its reputation as the missing person capital of the US. The coroner has an interesting time when he covers up the killings of Merlyn and her father and the tree planted at the site by the Sheriff seems to be planted in Miracle-gro.
Less hysterical than the pilot, this episode still manages to be feverish and over the top in its direction and camerawork with its jolting flashbacks, mystical tree growth and racing, coloured skies. Thng is, none of that's necessary. There is enough plot going on here for a slow burn approach to bring creeps aplenty. The most effective moment is when the sheriff announces that the doctor is needed elsewhere just before the doc's pager goes off.
With all this visual nonsense going on, it is still hard for the actors to show, but Paige Turco is impressively normal as Caleb's cousin Gail and Brenda Bakke's quietly spoken schoolteacher is turning into something of a real creepy psycho. Gary Cole's evil sheriff is too obviously evil to be truly effective, but he is keeping the character this side of caricature.Top
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Now that Caleb has been found, the struggle is on for guardianship. Caleb wants to stay with the Doctor, but the Sheriff isn't about to let that happen. He sets out to discredit him, using the hospital anaesthetist as his tool. Turning the man's wife into a tart obsessed with her own reflection and then permanently disfiguring her and leaning on the judge in the case to ensure the outcome. What he doesn't know is that there is a new player in the game and that the judge has a secret that puts him beyond the sheriff's influence.
The visual tone of the show is settling down and that's improving it tremendously. The change of tack with the Sheriff (who is still too clearly the devil or his agent) attacking the doctor through others is cleverer than the direct challenges to date and makes him all the creepier. His final defeat is down to things he cannot control and his revenge is swift. The introduction of the crow is a dark symbol too cliche and detracts.Top
DAMNED IF YOU DON'T
The sheriff turns his attention to the Bowen family, owners of the town scrapyard/garage. He asks the father of the family to let him use the 15 year old daughter as a secretary, but he refuses. Before long, the mother is injured and a new houseguest has taken up residence, one with an eye for young Poppy's undeniable charms. What's a father to do? Meanwhile, Caleb is tempted by the sheriff's offer an easy answer to winning the science fair and Gail Emory finds a key that might help unravel the secrets behind her parents' death.
The best episode so far. There is menace aplenty from the main story as Sheriff Buck manipulates the scrapyard owner into a situation that you just know is going to end in tears. How his emissary plays upon the young daughter is straight out of CAPE FEAR, but it is really effective and there is more than a little erotic imagery going on to raise the temperature. Meanwhile, the battle for Caleb's soul takes on a lower profile, but is actually the stronger for that. The fight between good and evil isn't always fought on giant battelfields, but sometimes in something as small as a primary school science fair.
The sheriff's character here is a little less supernatural and more manipulative and that makes him more dangerous and scary. It just goes to show that sometimes less is more.Top
DEAD TO THE WORLD
The sheriff comes under Gail Emory's scrutiny even more when she learns that he was the driver of a car that was in a crash that killed an old friend. Whilst he tries, not too hard, to block her enquiry, he also tries to teach Caleb the killer instinct for the upcoming archery contest.
OK, I know when the series first started we wanted it to settle down a bit and be a little less hysterical. Taht doesn't mean we wanted it to become dull. That's what this episode is. The sheriff is so evil that he's in danger of becoming a caricature of himself and the battle for Caleb's soul has become rather tedious.
Let's hope that this is just a temporary blip.Top
MEET THE BEETLES
Caleb discovers a body under his old house, a body that is just bones, but which has been dead less than three days. Gail investigates, as does a state policeman who has Sheriff Buck high on his suspect list. The answer, it seems, lies in the beetles kept at the Trinity Natural History Museum.
The thing about AMERICAN GOTHIC is that when it abandons the supernatural hysteria and goes for the slow burn dread approach it's all the more effective. This episode, which is basically a battle of wills between the Sheriff, Gail, Miss Coombs and the state trooper manages to be fascinating, horrifying and satisfying all at the same time.
OK, so they overdo the beetle motif by getting the little critters in every shot, just about, but this is one of the best episodes to date.Top
THE STRONG ARM OF THE LAW
There's a new gang in town and they're willing to provide protection, at a price. Sheriff Buck makes nice and tries to recruit them to the team, but when that fails he sets out to show them who the boss really is.
Another episode that's light on the supernatural and heavy on the sheriff being a very bad man. As a result, it's intriguing, though it does suffer from at least one of the new bad guys overacting like his life depended on it and a final scene that is so ripped off from MAD MAX that someone ought to be bringing lawsuits.
This episode's also pretty light on explanations. Just why did the bad guys kill Buck's opponent for sheriff, what happened to the first man in jail and why should a sheriff who can make money bleed bother with hitting people over the head with a shovel?Top
Merlyn finds a way to borrow a soul and come back to life for a short time. Caleb is initially delighted, but then less so when she falls for a rebellious stranger in town called Ray. Sheriff Buck sees her return as a chance to turn Caleb around and bring him to the dark side. The race is on for two souls, Merlyn's and the baby's.
This episode almost makes it to the end without messing up. Merlyn's rebirth and joy at being alive again is delightful and gives Sarah Paulson a chance to flesh out the character and make her more real than she has been at any time to date. Sadly, the rush to get her involved with Ray before the final showdown doesn't allow enough time for the story to develop naturally, always feeling like a gallon's being poured into a pint.
Then comes the finale on the bridge. Throughout the series the Sheriff has clearly been the devil himself, or at least a high-ranking demon, and here he shows himself to be a shapeshifter capable of taking on the form of another. The reality of the situation is sadly undermined. Whilst there was doubt he was an interesting character. Now he's more of a cartoon. Shame really because this was really a much better episode.Top
When Sheriff Buck refuses to help a radio talk show host break into television, he gets tape of a shooting incident involving Deputy Ben and uses it as blackmail. Buck isn't about to let that happen and so the games begin, a game that's likely to end in murder. Caleb, meanwhile, is worried that Merlyn hasn't been around for a while and thinks that she's trapped somewhere and so sets about a ceremony to free her. The ceremony, though, might not be what he thinks.
One of the very best episodes so far, eschewing most of the visual tics that have blighted the early episodes and just getting on with the job of telling a dark, twisted and entertaining story. OK, it's maybe a little predictable, but the sheriff's supernatural nature isn't overplayed and it's about manipulation of people's weaknesses. That's when AMERICAN GOTHIC is at its best and it gives Gary Cole a bit of shade and depth that he struggles to create on his own.
Even the Caleb strand of the story has more subtlety than usual with his need to help his sister taking him to places and things that he doesn't understand and which might just destroy Merlyn's presence rather than restore it.Top
Merlyn Temple is back in Caleb's life, but not as the meek and helpless spirit trying to watch over him and keep him from following the wrong path. Now she is a vengeful ghost capable of appearing to others and bringing powers to bear that are the equal of Sheriff Buck's. The first battlegrounds will be for the souls of a priest and a lawyer who crossed the Sheriff.
Since the beginning of AMERICAN GOTHIC we've not been too fond of the character of Lucas Buck. Too obvious in his supernatural evil to fit in a show trying to be subtle. Well, we can stop that now, not because he's changed, but because the show has. The battle lines are drawn and the powers are out. In the blue corner, Merlyn Temple with her righteous anger and a whole load of power and in the red corner, Lucas Buck with apparently less power, but a few dark tricks up his sleeve.
Make no mistake, this is the main event. The side strands of the lost priest and the greedy lawyer are pretty much just in the way. It will be interesting to see the lines the show develops along.Top
THE PLAGUE SOWER
A bleeding disease has come to Trinity. People are bleeding from the eyes and from the ears and neither Doctor Matt nor the new man from the Disease Control Centre seem to be able to find a cure. The sheriff, though, seems to know everyone affected. When the Doctor and Gail Emory get the disease, it seems that even the good are susceptible.
Ends, means and justification. Is the torture and killing of those seduced by evil justified in the name of preserving the good? That's the question of this episode. The scenes in the hospital with the desperate and the dying are quite strong and the plot is very strong for once, especially when the Doctor gets affected and hope starts ebbing away.
The bit that doesn't work is Gail Emory's seduction by Buck. She gives in to his advances so quickly and turns up saying it's just about the sex so that you can't tell whether it's a bad dream or really happening. When it turns out that it's really happening you just don't believe it for a second.Top
DOCTOR DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY
A woman arrives in Trinity with the apparent aim of killing Sheriff Buck. She claims to be his mother. When Doctor Matt intervenes to stop her, she accuses him of not acting on what he knows of Buck's evil. The Doctor is conflicted, but when the woman subsequently dies at Buck's instigation, he makes a decision that will have far-reaching implications for everyone in Trinity.
Well now here's a surprise - one of the top three characters simply taken out of the frame in the midst of the series. It's another tale where manipulation of our baser natures is what determines the outcome. Ends justifying means and good fighting back with the methods of evil. It's not as good as the previous
THE BEAST WITHIN
Caleb has a dream involving a man who turns out to be deputy Ben's mentally unstable brother. Arty, takes Caleb, Lucas, Gail and Doctor Matt hostage after a bungled robbery and then reveals that he has a bomb set to go off at precisely 11am. Lucas sits back and lets Ben play the hero for once.
Well now this is bizarre. Ben's brother turns up and happens to have a bomb inside his belly? Lucas is in some way responsible for this, though how is never revealed? Caleb is hearing people's dreams now? For all of that, this is a fun episode with lots of lighter moments and twists in the story before a surprisingly tense final few minutes.Top
TO HELL AND BACK
A woman is nearly killed by her drunk driving husband at a time where Doctor Crower is suffering badly from overwork and a lack of sleep. Sheriff Buck plays on this to trigger memories of the doctor's own tragedy with the aim of driving him to drink once more and offering a chance to go back and make things right.
Now this is what this show should be all about. The sheriff and the doctor go head to head in a battle for the doctor's soul. The methods used are subtler than usual and the supernatural element is less pronounced. Most of what Dr Crower is experiencing might be down to lack of sleep, but then it might be real. This all makes his slow deterioration to the point of surrender much more believable than we might have expected from some other episodes. It also allows for the doctor to make a threat that is likely to liven up the whole show if he makes good on it and goes on the offensive.Top
LEARNING TO CRAWL
Caleb has a near death experience and the sheriff takes him fishing as a way of relaxing and regaining his health. Unfortunately, the house they were supposed to use has become the hideout for a trio of inept kidnappers. Sheriff Buck uses the experience to start teaching Caleb about his own special brand of law enforcement.
The devil is all about turning man against his brother and using your own special weakness against yourself. That's what this episode is all about and it is all the more convincing for the lack of supernatural powers on display. The way that Buck twists the emotions of just about everyone around him is the essence of pure evil and all the more interesting to watch. His particular brand of cruelty is as compelling as it is corrosive and that, surely, is the point.Top
Selena Coombs has always been Sheriff Buck's right hand woman. Now there's a new man in her life, one that treats her right and her faith in Buck is wavering. He takes steps to remedy the situation. At the same time, Gail discovers that she is pregnant, though with what she doesn't know as the only man she has laid with recently was Sheriff Buck.
We're back to the overheated visuals. Gail's dilemma with the baby is cue for all kinds of skewed angles, distorting lenses and I don't know what. It makes it much harder to connect with her and her emotional turmoil. The scene where she decides to end her life is a kicker, though. The triangle of the title between Lucas, Selena and the new doctor in town has a bit more depth to it than you might have expected, though Lucas pulling a supernatural fever out of the hat when it looks like he is going to lose is just too much of a cop out.Top
THE BUCKS STOPS HERE
Selena wants her doctor man to kill Sheriff Buck, so when the sheriff ends up dead of a stab to the head with a medical tool, suspicion falls directly on him. The death has a great effect on Caleb, perhaps more than it has on the sheriff himself.
OK, I must have kind of missed something here because one week after telling Buck that his was the name that she yelled out to be saved by, Selena's planning his murder. Even for her that's a big turn around. The fact that the sheriff ends up dead is a bit of a surprise, but one that's rectified by the last shot of the show. It allows plenty of chance for all the characters to actually admit what sheriff Buck meant to them.
The battle for Caleb seems to have been lost and that again seems like a very sudden turn around. Gail admits that she loved the sheriff (say what?) and deputy Ben is out of his depth without him. Boy are they in for a surprise in the next episode.Top
Lucas Buck has been buried alive and is slowly suffocating. As he fades, a new evil rises in Trinity - Caleb Temple. Merlyn is unable to stem Caleb's slide into the shadow of his father. Only Lucas can do that, which means a big face off between the Buck boys. This is only going to be resolved with a sacrifice and Lucas Buck only knows how to sacrifice others.
Once again we get to see what this show is capable of at its best. This is a fabulous episode with all the major players circling around each other, shifting alliances, suffering losses (deep ones in the case of both Lucas and Caleb) and facing up to their enemies. The death of the head doctor is a distraction from the main event, but the rest of the episode is rivetting.
It's nice for once to see the sheriff meet his match and suffer the same kind of losses that he inflicts on others and there are ramifications here that are going to affect these characters throughout the future of the show.
If only all the episodes could have been this good.Top
Requiem marked the end of the initial run of AMERICAN GOTHIC, but there were four other episodes produced that appear on the DVD box set and are now shown after the main series, out of order. POTATO BOY is the first of these.
Caleb learns about the Potato Boy, a deformed child who can sing like an angel. Merlyn comforts the child. Selena is also in need of comfort and turns to Caleb to provide it when the local priest, her real father, fails to do so. Dr Crower also needs comfort and turns to the priest for confession of his hatred for Lucas Buck. Deputy Ben turns to a psychiatrist for help.
You can see why this episode might not have made the initial run because it all seems somehow unfocussed and irrelevant. It moves nothing of the main plot forward and has precious little to say about the characters, with the exception of Selena Coombs. Her breakdown in the arms of Caleb is one of the finest things that Brenda Bakke has ever done, certainly in this show, and is worth watching the episode for alone. There really isn't that much reason to watch it otherwise.Top
RING OF FIRE
Gail is about to quit Trinity for good when Lucas Buck offers to let her know what really happened to her parents in the fire that killed them. In a series of flashbacks, she finds that they were not the perfect people she recalls and that the cause of the fire was not Lucas Buck, but a more surprising source.
Now this is an episode that should not have been cut from the initial run. Not only does it add layers to the past of characters dead and gone, but it gives a depth to both the characters of Gail and Buck. It also makes it much more clear why her feelings would start to turn and why she would agree to sleep with Buck in The Plague Sower, something that never made any sort of sense before.Top
ECHO OF YOUR LAST GOODBYE
Deputy Ben is being haunted by Merlyn Temple, being driven to a house on the poor side of town, a house with a past that is intimately connected with the Temple family. Lucas warns him to stay away, but he can't and finds out more about Lucas Buck, and himself, than he might have suspected. Caleb, meanwhile tries to fight a bully by being a bully.
It doesn't make any sense that anyone would choose not to show this as part of the initial run of the series. For one thing, this is the episode when both Ben and Gail learn that Lucas is Caleb's father and their relationships with him are changed for good. It's not the best episode, to be sure, but there are things going on here that affect the way that the characters view each other and interact.Top
After a run-in with Merlyn, Sheriff Buck calls upon the spirit of the Boston Strangler to come to Trinity and take care of her once and for all. Whilst deputy Ben tries to investigate the string of killings, the strangler uses Caleb as bait to bring Merlyn to him and to her doom.
This is the last of the quartet of episodes 'missing' from the first run of AMERICAN GOTHIC and, along with Potato Boy, probably the most deserving. For one thing, it completely shatters any question marks over the nature of Lucas Buck's power and devalues the whole sense of mystery and duality that the show has been trying to build up. The idea that the evil is within us, that it comes from us, that Lucas Buck is here only because we not only allow it, but ask for it, is swept away in favour of actual, independant evil. It's probably the least of the series as a whole and certainly not the one that you want to go out of the series on. Get hold of the boxset of DVDs and watch Requiem again. Now that's how to end a series.Top
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