Number 4: American Gothic
‘American Gothic’ tells the story of young Caleb Temple who, orphaned in an early episode, takes centre stage in a struggle between corrupt and evil Sheriff Lucas Buck and kind-hearted town doctor Matt Crower. Haunted by ghosts both benevolent and malevolent, Caleb struggles to remain free of Buck’s talons whilst navigating a world thick with mysteries and supernatural influence.
Created by media jack-of-all-trades Shaun Cassidy and with contributions by a lengthy list of writers, ‘America Gothic’ arrived on the CBS network with a heavy promotional push. Executive produced by horror legends Sam Raimi and Bob Tapert, it was one of the few shows of the time to cater exclusively to the adult genre market. 1995 saw many television heavy-hitters on air – police procedural ‘Murder One’ debuted to huge ratings, ‘The X Files’ was still sweeping all before it, and ‘The Outer Limits’ modern iteration was doing decent numbers – and ‘American Gothic’ struggled to achieve large audiences. It did have excellent word of mouth however, and very quickly a loyal horror following were glued to their sets for the latest developments in Trinity, South Carolina.
In casting Gary Cole as central character Sheriff Buck, the show’s creators gave the show both an immediate fanbase and solid acting chops. His performance was surprising to contemporary audiences as he used public perception to great effect; in public, Buck is charming and erudite, the very embodiment of the Southern gentleman – much like Cole himself – but in private, a sinister and black puppeteer, cruel and callous. In truth, much of the character’s depth comes from Cole himself, whose performance here is both captivating and frightening. Lucas Black – who would later find fame as part of the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise – was the rarest of things in his role as Caleb Temple; a child actor who was talented rather than precocious and irritating. The standout performance here is that of Sarah Paulson, now of ‘American Horror Story’ fame, as Caleb’s sister Merlyn. Pulling double duty as both the only light in the bleak world of a young boy and a constant reminder of the horrors at work, she is ethereal and beautiful in what is, arguably, her best role to date. The regular cast are solid, and are rounded out by: Brenda Bakke as promiscuous and controlling schoolteacher Selena Coombs; Nick Searcy, as Deputy Ben Healy, a local policeman in Buck’s thrall; Paige Turco’s nosey reporter Gail Emory; and ‘The Haunting of Molly Hartley’ star Jake Weber, as compassionate Dr Crower. Fans will be further entertained by the appearance of legend Bruce Campbell, Batman’s commissioner Gordon Pat Hingle, and ‘The Mummy’ himself, Arnold Vosloo in guest spots.
Of all the shows on this list ‘American Gothic’ is undoubtedly one of the most thematically dark. Buck’s alter-ego is suitably demonic and over the course of the season proves himself in the most grisly of ways; both murder and sexual abuse are a large part of the landscape in Trinity, giving way to some moments of real horror. The show’s supernatural leanings are also apparent from the very earliest episodes, both via the frequent and important appearance of various disturbed spirits and through the heavy demonic influences in the town. As the season progresses further familiar genre features are introduced; a man is gruesomely tortured and abused, major characters are assaulted and left comatose, the town is afflicted by a terrifying plague, child abuse, serial killers, suicide, and blackmail all rear their heads as the tale unfolds.
Despite being well received by critics, who praised its atmosphere, characterisation and performances, ‘American Gothic’ never garnered sufficient ratings to save it from the network’s axe and it was cancelled after one season. Unhelpfully, CBS also aired some episodes out of sequence although this was at least sensibly done; in fact, it wasn’t until it was uncovered by media outlets that this became public knowledge. Twenty two episodes were made but the network ceased broadcast after the end of episode 18, entitled ‘Requiem’; the final four – ‘Potato Boy’, ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Echo of Your Last Goodbye’, and ‘Strangler’ did not see light until the series went into syndication almost two years later. In recent years, the show is widely recognised as being ahead of its time and the fact that it was cancelled is really no surprise given the show’s incredibly dark subject matter. Occasional talk of a remake has surfaced periodically in the nineteen years since its release but this has yet to bear fruit.
‘American Gothic’ was the black heart of American Network programming in the mid-nineties, one that holds up remarkably well to modern viewings. With far inferior offerings like rubbish vampire sex-fest ‘True Blood’ stealing its sweaty, Deep South stylings, and with modern audiences more willing to indulge in bleak and harrowing episodic shows, there has never been a better time to revisit, or discover, life in Trinity, South Carolina.
Strange extended clip / Promo: