Prints of Darkness: American Gothic Impresses

CBS’s 13-episode series American Gothic (not to be confused with the more supernaturally-oriented drama of the same title that ran on the network for one season in 1995-1996) enjoyed neither critical acclaim nor hit ratings during its Summer 2016 run; dismissive commentators and disinterested viewers, though, jointly missed an entertaining and well-executed dark crime narrative.

From its opening scene, American Gothic lives up to its genre-asserting title: a ceiling collapse in the Eiffert Tunnel uncovers the belt used by the notorious (and never apprehended) Silver Bells Killer, a strangler who terrorized Boston for several years a decade and a half earlier. Sins of the past come to ominous light, as the bloodstained murder weapon implicates the patriarch of an upper-crust New England family (unsubtly surnamed the Hawthornes) that appears to be closeting more skeletons than Spirit Halloween in the offseason. Much of the subsequent action is centered in the Hawthorne mansion (which features a winding staircase that proves integral to the storyline), and the show also recurs to other prominent American Gothic settings—the woods, a cornfield—for further macabre doings. Recalling The House of the Seven Gables, the show sounds the theme of the generational curse, as father Mitch’s seeming transgressions cast a haunting shadow over his family’s lives, threatening, for example, to derail the mayoral campaign of daughter Alison. The Hawthorne children repeatedly fret about a deviant gene passed down the bloodline (is suspected serial killer Mitch’s grandson Jack just precocious, or a prepubescent sociopath?), but environment must also be considered as a corrupting influence. It’s interesting to note how, in unrepressed retrospect, son Cam’s adult struggles with heroine addiction trace back to a deadly household scene from his teenage years.

Cooking up more than soap-y melodrama, American Gothic exhibits an appreciable level of cleverness. It gives several fresh and intriguing twists to the hoary serial-killer plot.  From week to week, the “wavering finger of suspicion” (to borrow literary theorist Northrop Frye’s phrase) is adroitly wielded; even when characters eventually are exposed as killers, surprising turns of the screw are then given to their motivations. The series also offers intelligent subtext, as each episode’s titular and visual echoes of an American painting (e.g., Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field) point to a dark undercurrent running through the nation’s art history.

Incidentally, American Gothic fails to restage the Grant Wood painting from which it draws its name, perhaps because the rustic couple depicted on that canvas have since become so iconic, any invocation of them would prove too distracting. The graphic from the show’s title sequence (see above) transforms a quaint-if-pretentious Iowa homestead into a palatial estate, but nonetheless manages to tap into hints of the sinister in the Wood work. Notice how the mansion’s bloody roots suggest an inverted pitchfork.

I don’t want to misrepresent American Gothic as a picture-perfect effort. No doubt the show has its flaws. Alison’s husband Tom inexplicably disappears from the story (at the precise point when he should be considered a prime suspect in one of the murders), and the suspension of disbelief is strained as one character knowingly consorts with the relative of her father’s killer. Still, most of the strokes are deft ones. The grimness is offset by just the right amount of comic relief, such as that provided by pesty neighbor Phyllis in her perennial search for her missing cat Caramel. Virginia Madsen shines in her role as Madeline Hawthorne, devoted mother and keeper of dark family secrets. The actress gives a restrained yet multifaceted performance, and like the show overall, never descends into campiness. Ultimately, the murder-mystery-driven American Gothic satisfies the needs of the most ravenous binge-watcher, while also providing more substantive fare for those viewers determined to reflect on the artfulness of the creators’ endeavor.

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