The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 18-22

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

 

Episode 18: “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”

At the start of this episode (which never aired during the show’s original run), Deputy Ben’s date Cindy teases him about being a “dark secret type.” There’s significance to the comment, though; Cindy subsequently morphs into Merlyn Temple, who proceeds to break her own neck (just as Ben witnessed Sheriff Lucas Buck do to her in the show’s first episode).

An ever-versatile ghost, Merlyn repeatedly appears (demonstrating the nonsensical turns to which Americna Gothic was sometimes prone) to Ben by taking over the bodies of flesh-and-blood women he encounters throughout the episode. Encouraging Ben, in grave terms, to grab a shovel and start digging up the truth, Merlyn leads the deputy to a Gothic ruin in the Goat Town section of Trinity–an abandoned and now decrepit former home for children (a rat-stuffed teddy bear is included in the detritus strewn about the place). Ben detects the foul smell of a festering body here (at one point he’s accosted by a moldering-corpse version of Merlyn), and the building is haunted (by a somber ensemble of kid spirits–who were doomed to early deaths after the proprietor was no longer around to take them in), but no one literally died there. Merlyn, though–who reveals that her mother Judith was the woman who operated the home–is trying to bring a murder to light: she wants Ben to realize that her mother’s suicidal plunge from a hospital window actually occurred at Lucas’s tossing hands.

Perhaps the most notable element of the episode is its confirmation of what has been suspected throughout the series: Lucas (who raped and impregnated Judith, in the hopes of creating a sinister scion) is the biological father of Caleb Temple. In an appropriate subplot, we see Caleb starting to develop into his father’s son. Tutored in cruelty and vengeance by Lucas, Caleb plays a vicious prank on a school bully, Tina.

Overall, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, and marred by muddy character motivation (Caleb’s cousin Gail seems to vacillate between the successfully-seduced lover of Lucas and the determined journalist hellbent on exposing the sheriff’s history of evil misdeed). A measure of redemption, though, is achieved in the closing moments, as the meaning of the episode’s curious title is clarified. Ben and Merlyn (here possessing the bartender Allison) slow-dance to the atmospheric–and thematically resonant–Mel Torme torch song, “The House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye).”

 

Episode 19: “Triangle”

This episode of American Gothic could just have easily been titled (with a nod to Ira Levin) “Gail Emory’s Baby.” When Gail moves to end her affair with Lucas Buck, and threatens to leave town with her cousin Caleb in tow, the sheriff gives her a supernatural nudge that lands her in the hospital. There she learns that she is pregnant with Lucas’s child. The subsequent ultrasound furnishes one of the series’ creepiest scenes, as the grotesque fetus in the sonogram opens its eyes, turns toward Gail and flashes a demonic grin.

The expectant mother continues to experience disturbing visions concerning the monstrous thing growing inside her. These could be dismissed as nightmares or hallucinations brought on by Gail’s own terror, but mid-episode the viewer learns that Miss Emory isn’t just imagining things. A fiendish conspiracy is in place: the nurse who denies that there is anything abnormal about the fetus pictured in the sonogram is actually lying on Lucas’s behalf (the sheriff blackmails her into playing along by threatening to expose her “extracurricular research in the narcotics supply room”).

Gail, though, isn’t about to take the news of her pregnancy lying down. She attempts to flee Trinity, but is stymied by the sudden appearance of Lucas on the roadway. “There’s no running from me, you know that,” the modern Gothic hero-villain reminds the frightened maiden.

For all of Lucas’s entanglement with Gail, he’s also hung up on his ex-lover Selena. And small-town romance begets big-time intrigue when Lucas chafes at Selena and Dr. Billy Peele’s relationship. He gives ominous warnings to both individuals to cease and desist, and when the defiant lovers continue to carry on carnally, Lucas gives Selena a real reason to feel hot and bothered: while in bed with Billy, she is overcome by a 108-degree fever. Lucas casts the incendiary spell with a strike of a match and a proclamation of “Burn, baby, burn”–words that work not just as a sardonic echo of the Trammps’ disco-era classic but as an invocation of the American history of anarchic violence.

In this episode, American Gothic once again demonstrates its cleverness through the use of background details. When Gail ponders a suicidal leap from the roof of the local bank, the institution’s name shines suggestively behind her: “Trinity Trust,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, in this town presided over by a devilish sheriff and riddled with dirty secrets and unholy bargains.

 

Episode 20: “Strangler”

“Strangler,” another episode that was never aired during American Gothic‘s single-season run, opens with a scene set in an autumnal cemetery (as Caleb visits Gage Temple’s grave) and gets progressively darker from there.

Determined to rid himself once and for all of Merlyn and her meddling ways, Sheriff Lucas Buck summons the ghostly figure of legendary serial killer Albert DeSalvo (a.k.a The Boston Strangler). Albert might no longer be haunting Beantown, but he has no problem living up to the latter part of his notorious moniker. He warms up for his eventual assault on Merlyn by fatally throttling a pair of pretty nurses from Trinity hospital and by nearly dispatching Lucas’s paramour, Gail Emory.

The eponymous Strangler is a chilling bogeyman, and a quintessentially Gothic figure rife with duplicity. Handsome Albert oozes spurious charm; “politeness gets you in anywhere,” he confides to Lucas during their initial meeting. Accordingly, he conducts his grim business by posing as a friendly refrigerator repairman, a deliveryman, and a handyman. Postmortem existence also makes the Strangler that much more dangerous, since he no longer needs to work his way past locked doors in order to get at his victims. The scene in which Albert attacks Gail is especially frightening, as the back-from-the-dead predator keeps pouncing on the distressed damsel from different angles no matter how many times she tries to throw him off and flee.

This episode, I must admit, is marred by some stilted dialogue (Lucas down on his knees in the cemetery chanting “Send forth the One!”) and hokey actions (Merlyn–who has somehow evolved into a supernaturally-empowered angel–shooting pulses of light at Albert). But its climax broaches a bit of dark irony that also shines a light on a central conflict. When Merlyn is about to sacrifice herself to the Strangler in order to protect Caleb, the boy uses his nascent powers (his infernal inheritance form Lucas) to immolate Albert. Such intervention, though, makes for a more ominous than joyous ending: sure, Merlyn acknowledges, Caleb has saved her soul, but only by drawing on the force that is bound to destroy his own.

 

Episode 21: “The Buck Stops Here”

Pillow talk takes a dark turn at the start of this penultimate episode of American Gothic, as Selena and Billy fantasize out loud about various ways of killing Lucas Buck (Billy just seems to be playing along, but Selena is serious about offing her sinister ex-lover). What makes the scene even more transgressive is that it occurs in Lucas’s own bed. Recognizing the signs of an illicit dalliance, Lucas later confronts Selena and voices perhaps his most graphic threat to date: “If you ever soil my house again, I’ll cut out your heart and use it for a chamois.”

“The Buck Stops Here” strikes another gross note as Gail prepares an afternoon meal. Lucas’s pregnant paramour makes a misnomer of roast as she bastes and then suddenly gorges upon a bloody, undercooked hunk of meat. Gail’s strange craving erases any doubt that the child growing inside her is a normal one.

The central focus of the episode, though, is the “murder” of Lucas. In a scene that sounds strong echoes of Psycho, a shadowy figure hiding in the sheriff’s Gothic home jumps out and stabs Lucas in the forehead with a trocar. Billy, who just happened to be at the scene of the crime, is arrested, but the two characters the audience really suspects are Selena and Trinity pharmacist Yancy Lydon (who has a grudge against Lucas because he failed to help Yancy’s comatose wife).

Lingering in a hospital bed, Lucas summons his son Caleb, and whispers a request in the boy’s ear. Some nefarious scheme seems to be forming, and a transfer of power transpiring (underscored by the father and son’s joint recitation of the phrase “An Old Order of the Ages Is Born Anew”). Lucas then promptly has a seizure and expires, yet the viewer can’t help but believe that Buck will be back for the conclusion of the series.

Now in full Damien mode, Caleb tracks down Yancy, telling the man that “My daddy sent me.” Caleb also ominously promises to give the pharmacist (presumably Lucas’s attacker) a taste of his own medicine. Shortly thereafter, a terrified Yancy is discovered (by Billy and Deputy Ben) lying choking on a brimming mouthful of pills.

American Gothicism arguably hits its peak during Lucas’s funeral. The scene plays out like a macabre variation on the Seinfeld finale, as an assortment of characters from earlier episodes are brought back for brief appearances. Some of these figures approaching the coffin are genuinely saddened by Lucas’s passing and express appreciation of him, but the sheriff’s corpse is also spit upon by one Trinity citizen and nearly disfigured by the disgruntled, hook-handed Waylon (the current husband of Ben’s ex-wife). This dramatic airing of allegiances and grievances serves as a fitting testimony to the work Sheriff Buck has done as a Gothic hero-villain for the constituents of his sleepy South Carolina town.

And–as his eyes pop open inside the coffin at episode’s end–it looks like Buck’s work is not yet done.

 

Episode 22: “Requiem”

Somewhat fittingly, the series finale of American Gothic begins with a graveyard scene, as funeral services are held for the seemingly departed Lucas Buck. Afterwards, Deputy Ben reminds a disrespectful gravedigger that the sheriff helped a lot of people in Trinity, a statement that prompts a bit of mordant wit from the cemetery man: “Yeah, he sure threw a lot of business my way.”

The best line of the episode (if not the entire series), though, is delivered by the prematurely-buried Buck himself, when Ben and Dr. Billy dig up his grave and throw open his coffin: “Well, if it ain’t the Hardy Boys.” Such sardonic comment (referencing the famous Young Adult series of Gothic-tinged mysteries) is quintessential Buck, and a perfect example of what makes this hero-villain figure so endearing to viewers.

In terms of its plot, “Requiem” centers on the evil evolution of Caleb, who is suddenly suffused with demonic power when Lucas suffers his almost-fatal demise. Caleb transforms into a pint-sized tyrant, and after the funeral, packs up his belongings and moves to occupy his father’s house. Upon arrival, he finds Selena waiting there for him; the sultry seductress proposes joining forces and hints at joining bodies (what would the Gothic be without the whiff of illicit sexuality?). Still seething over Buck’s spurning her for Gail, Selena informs Caleb of his cousin’s pregnancy and warns him that the child Gail is carrying is a threat to him as heir of the sheriff’s powers. Caleb, who doesn’t need much convincing on the point, tells Selena to deliver Gail to him, a sinister request that leads Selena to reply (sounding the theme of evil inheritance), “You’re your father’s son, all right.”

When Gail is subsequently lured to Buck’s house, she makes a disturbing discovery in one of the rooms. Symbolizing Caleb’s petulant protest of Gail’s pregnancy, a bloodied doll has been left lying in a shrouded bassinet. Emerging to confront Gail, Caleb tells her she must get rid of her unborn baby, but apparently the boy doesn’t have the patience to wait. He proceeds, in a scene that perhaps represents the apex of American Gothic‘s Gothicism, to chase Gail through Buck’s gloomy, stuffed-raven-and-grinning-skull-furnished mansion while wielding a fireplace poker.

Lucas, transformed into the role of heroic rescuer, bursts through the front door, only to see Gail sent tumbling down the staircase. He carries her off to safety, but the fall causes her to suffer a miscarriage.

The resurrected sheriff has some unfinished business to attend to before returning to deal with his upstart son. Knowing that Dr. Narone deliberately sentenced him to an erroneous internment, Lucas acts to take vengeance. He forces the good doctor to hang himself with his own granddaughter’s jump rope (Lucas promises to spare the girl Ashley from his wrath if Narone carries out the suicide). Ironically, Ashley is the one to discover Narone’s body, and innocently informs the hospital staff that her “Grandpa is sleeping on the ceiling.”

With that score settled, Lucas (with the ghostly help of Merlyn) confronts his bastard son. Amidst the climactic battle, Lucas hoists Caleb overhead, preparing to toss him off the second floor landing. Merlyn pleads with Lucas to spare Caleb, but he insists there’s no other way. Caleb is sent flying, but Merlyn’s “body” breaks his fall. She winks out in the process, her essence filtering into Caleb and counteracting his nascent malice. Still, there might be more to this turn of events than meets the eye. When the recovered Caleb realizes that Merlyn is gone and wonders what he is going to do now, Lucas assures him (in the final line of the series), “I think we’ll get by.” As the screen fades to black, the viewer is left wondering if Lucas hasn’t just pulled off another one of his Machiavellian schemes, using the confrontation with Caleb as a means of getting rid of the perennially-interfering Merlyn once and for all.

At times during its single-season run, American Gothic suffered from a lack of continuity in its plotting and inconsistency in characterization (to me, the failure to ever clearly define the extent of Lucas’s powers was also a miscalculation). This show might not always have been sure where it was going, but for 22 episodes it did provide a fun ride for fans of the macabre. Week after week, American Gothic justified its show title, which is perhaps a large part of the reason the short-lived series remains such a cult favorite over two decades after its original broadcast.

 

 

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 13-17

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 13: “Resurrector”

Local shock jock Mel Kirby approaches the influential Sheriff Buck for help in moving from radio into television work, but when Lucas refuses to get involved, Mel vows to get even with him. An opportunity presents itself when the sheriff’s deputy, Ben, shoots Lance Biggs after the man fired on the postal carrier who was delivering bills to his home. Turns out that Biggs had owed Lucas money, so Mel uses his radio platform to (in Lucas’s words) “put a dark spin on this morning’s events.”

But give the devil his due: Lucas is not to be outdone when it comes to dirty dealing. With the help of his seductive sidekick Selena, Lucas convinces Mel that a brighter future awaits him: he can make a break into television, but only as a solo act. Mel will have to dump (i.e. kill off) his radio co-host wife Gloria. With that in mind, Mel takes Gloria out for a boat ride on Jackson Lake (only on American Gothic does a nighttime foray onto an eerie, fog-shrouded lake fit the notion of a romantic date). Unbeknownst to Mel, though, Gloria has already been warned by Lucas of her husband’s dishonorable intentions.

Meanwhile, Caleb–troubled by the lingering afterlife of his sister Merlyn–takes steps to release her from her earthly hauntings. Miss Holt, who runs the boarding house where Caleb lives, has a family scrapbook that contains the instructions for holding a “second funeral”–a “going-away party for the dead.” Caleb enlists the aid of his friend Boone, and when the former insists that they follow the directions exactly so as to adhere to old customs, the latter offers a distinctly Gothic counterpoint: “Burning people at the stake was an old custom, too.”

But the best line in the episode belongs to Lucas. When Mel realizes he’s been duped, he moans that he had only come to the sheriff for help. In response, Lucas flashes some of the grim wit that makes him such a wonderful hero-villain: “Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

 

Episode 14: “Inhumanitas”

American Gothic certainly justifies its show title with this fourteenth episode. “Inhumanitas” opens with Sheriff Lucas Buck and Father Tilden sitting in a church confessional. Lucas, though, isn’t there to articulate his various transgressions but to learn of the secret sins of Trinity’s populace. Father Tilden dishes the dirt on the townspeople, citing incidents of petty theft, unwanted pregnancy, and marital infidelity.  Lucas seeks “something [he] can use” in his personal dealings with the locals, and gets a surprisingly juicy tidbit when Tilden confides that Barbara Hudson puts nails in the street to keep cars from speeding by her house.

Corrupt religious figures are a familiar character type in Gothic narratives, and Tilden ties in to that tradition based on the bargain he has made with the devilish Lucas. In return for snitching on the penitent, Tilden gets the assurance that no harm will come to his church (which, as the sheriff recounts during the conversation in the confessional, has been “miraculously” spared from damage by a wildfire that ravaged the rest of the buildings on that block).

Macabre rendition of religious icons is another hallmark of the Gothic, and in this opening scene viewers watch a church statue come to life and take on the visage of Merlyn Temple. Merlyn has turned avenging angel in the hopes of saving her brother Caleb’s soul from Lucas.

Later in the episode, Lucas snuffs the life out of a Scripture-spouting Tilden by squeezing the crucifix from a set of the priest’s rosary beads in his fist. Tilden’s desperate prayer and the lack of protection provided by Christianity’s primary symbol recall the scene from the televised version of Salem’s Lot where Father Callahan is thwarted by the vampire Barlow.

Echoes of Psycho: as part of Merlyn’s terror campaign against the sheriff, she turns the water in his lover Selena’s shower bloody (the image of the dark fluid circling down the drain is unmistakably Hitchcockian).

As Lucas works his latest scheme against Barbara’s husband Brian, he remarks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the man could remove an unwanted tenant on his land by dismembering his body and burying him in the cellar–a course of action with which the narrators of certain Edgar Allan Poe stories would no doubt approve.

The episode’s most ominous note, though, is struck during the climactic confrontation between Lucas and Merlyn. The sheriff boasts of the dark power latent in his son Caleb, and warns that if he (Lucas) is killed, his evil spirit will flow straight inside the boy. “The child becomes the man,” and the Gothic theme of terrible inheritance is accordingly given a frightening twist.

 

Episode 15: “The Plague Sower”

In this episode, American Gothic hearkens back to the work of Charles Brockden Brown, by setting its story against a backdrop of terrible plague. A mysterious illness has been leveling the people of Trinity, who end up bleeding out from their mouth, eyes, and ears. Naturally, panic is burgeoning in the as-yet-uninfected, but Sheriff Lucas Buck tries to calm down the nervous masses by discounting the reports of bloody demise.
“In a small town,” he tells reporters and concerned citizens, “rumors can act like a cancer.”

Meantime, Lucas is using the situation to his advantage. When local hardware store owner A.E. Tippett comes to him complaining of bloody visions, Lucas offers to help the desperate man out–but only if Tippett will frame his own brother for the crime of vehicular homicide. Later, in a wonderfully ghoulish scene, Lucas moves to steal a plasma bag from a would-be transfusion recipient lying on a gurney in the hospital, just because the man had refused to do “business” with the sheriff in the past.

“The Plague Sower” is ripe with disturbing images, none more so than when Tippett falls victim to the bloodshed. A basic act of bathroom hygiene transforms into an uncanny incident:as Tippett brushes his teeth, the froth in his mouth is suddenly stained crimson, and what he ends up spitting into the sink looks like the product of the most gruesome case of gingivitis ever.

he source of all this Old-Testament-type unpleasantness? Merlyn Temple, in the role of avenging angel. Determined to protect the righteous and punish the wicked, she preys on anyone who has fallen in with the devilish Lucas (including her own lust-filled cousin Gail).

One minor but memorable moment from the episode perfectly captures the eponymous Gothicism of the series. Dr. Billy Peele, an investigator of the plague sent to Trinity from the CDC, goes door to door questioning the townspeople. When he asks one of the local yokels if he has noticed anything odd about his neighbors, the man’s superficially innocuous response rings with suggestiveness: “No, no more than usual.”

 

Episode 16: “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday”

“This is kind of a strange town, you know?”

These words from Dr. Billy Peele–a recent arrival in Trinity–perfectly capture the vibe of American Gothic. There’s no shortage of intrigue and lurking horror to be found in the bucolic Southern town, as evidenced by the episode “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday.”  When Judge Streeter declines to get involved in Lucas Buck’s latest scheme against Dr. Matt Crower (who has been digging up past nastiness by investigating Merlyn Temple’s death), the sheriff responds by using his devilish gifts to prey upon the gambling addiction of Streeter’s spouse, Charlotte. The desperate housewife (driven to attempt suicide) is discovered lying in a bloody bathtub by the judge after she loses big in a Lucas-influenced poker game.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Angela has come to town, claiming to be Lucas’s mother (she’s actually a jilted ex-lover) and aiming to assassinate the sheriff. When Dr. Matt jumps in to prevent the shooting, Angela is undeterred, working to manipulate the doctor into carrying out the deed himself. She argues that Lucas is “pure, otherworldly evil,” a supernatural equivalent of Hitler who needs to be snuffed out before he causes widespread suffering. The moralistic Dr. Matt is slowly convinced that Angela is right, but when his attempt to shoot down the sheriff fails, he earns himself an extended stay in a staple Gothic setting–an insane asylum.

Angela is dying of brain cancer, and has been admitted to a room in the local hospital. Conveniently enough, it’s the same room where Caleb Temple’s mom resided during the final days of her pregnancy. Room 105 is “cursed” (as the nurse Sarah tells Dr. Matt), plagued by inexplicable cold spots and presumably haunted by Mrs. Temple’s ghost. The nurse also relates that just prior to giving birth to Caleb, the distraught woman raved that someone was trying to take her baby away. Paging Ira Levin

The episode also makes reference to one of the founding fathers of American Gothic fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sitting with a book in hand in the boarding house parlor, Miss Holt tells Dr. Matt that she has chosen this particular author because reading Hawthorne is “like reading the human heart.”  No doubt there’s plenty of sin (secret, if not unpardonable) bound up in the hearts of Trinity’s constituents, and nowhere more voluminously than in the town’s duplicitous, corrupt(ing) law man.

 

Episode 17: “Learning to Crawl”

Despite being set primarily in a weathered cabin in the woods, “Learning to Crawl” is hardly the most Gothic installment of American Gothic. The episode does begin, though, with an instance of the sudden eruption of horror within everyday life, when Caleb is accidentally electrocuted and nearly killed while doing mundane chores down at the Sheriff’s Station.

Once Caleb survives the scare, Sheriff Lucas Buck takes the boy on a bass-fishing trip.  On the drive to the isolated cabin (located on the outskirts of a “ghost town”), Lucas entertains Caleb with a spook story about a monstrous cat haunting the Simpsonville woods. According to the yarning sheriff, the beast has never been seen, and is known only by the savage claw marks it has scored into trees.

The father-and-son team, however, run across a more natural nemesis upon arrival.  The cabin has been occupied by a trio of Capote-esque criminals who are holding a tobacco-company executive for ransom (and who end up killing the hostage in cold blood). These are ruthless folks, for sure, but they meet more than their match in Lucas, who calmly employs his devilish skills to manipulate the situation.

At one point during the standoff with the criminals, Lucas teaches Caleb a “visualization” technique. Caleb proceeds to imagine an outcome in which Jeri reunites with her brother-in-law Ted (with whom she’s been having an affair), but when the adulteress moves to embrace her lover she ends up kissing the bloody-mouthed corpse of her late husband Cody (whom she has recently gunned down). Subsequently, in an attempt to prey on Jeri’s fears, Caleb uses his nascent powers to terrorize her with the approach of the cat-monster from Lucas’s story. A scene of eerily lit woods (that seems to hearken back to the 1989 film Pet Sematary) ends with Jeri’s cheek clawed gorily open.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of “Learning to Crawl” is that the episode dramatizes the deepening bond between Lucas and Caleb and shows the former’s increasing tutelage of the latter. As the season-long run of American Gothic draws to a close, the storyline has started arcing towards what portends to be a dark climax.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 7-12

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 7: “Meet the Beetles”

The Gothicism of this episode is evident right from the opening, as Caleb and his friend Boone visit the ruins of the Temple house one foggy evening. When Caleb falls through a rotted floorboard, his foot gets caught inside the ribcage of a skeleton that seems to clutch at him as he thrashes.

“Meet the Beetles” also features several graveyard scenes. Caleb is perplexed by the discovery of a tombstone bearing his name (he dreams of digging up the grave, only to have his own undead self leap out at him). What’s actually buried here, though, is $30,000–a cash offering from Sheriff Buck to help get the orphaned Caleb started in life. Buck further tempts Caleb with the vision of building a “big old estate home” where the Temples’ house once stood (Buck now owns the land). The picture the sheriff paints–of luxuriating in a hammock while being weighed on by servants–calls to mind Thomas Sutpen’s obsession in the classic Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom!.

A good old Southern Gothic murder mystery forms the dark heart of the episode. Married men with rumored connections to Selena keep ending up dead, their corpses (though only days old) curiously stripped of skin and flesh. When the investigating Lt. Jack Drey (guest star Bruce Campbell) finds himself chained inside a makeshift coffin and covered with carnivorous beetles, his gruesome predicament firmly establishes “Meet the Beetles” as the most horrifying of American Gothic‘s first seven installments.

 

Episode 8: “Strong Arm of the Law”

The eighth episode of American Gothic opens with Caleb and his sidekick Boone sneaking up onto a porch at night to catch glimpse of a naked woman. The would-be voyeurs, though, are shocked to discover no bathing beauty but rather a group of pig-masked figures busy drowning a man in a tub.

Will Hawkins, the victim, had recently endorsed a rival candidate for the position of town sheriff, leading Deputy Ben to doubt that Hawkins’s death was a mere accident. Further suspicion falls on Lucas Buck when a band of lawless brothers arrive in Trinity and begin shaking down local business owners (under the flimsy pretense that they are collecting for charities such as the “Sheriff’s Retirement Home”). But Buck is not responsible for the presence of the criminal quartet, who have chosen the wrong Southern town to stir up trouble in. The Sheriff’s qualities as a Gothic hero-villain are never more evident than when he first smooth-talks the brothers (leading them to believe that he approves of their misbehavior), and then methodically takes vengeance against them. Justice is is chillingly dispensed: one brother, in Poe-esque fashion, ends up buried alive alongside Will Hawkins in the latter’s coffin. And the episode’s climax offers a scenario that prefigures the traps of the Saw films: Buck handcuffs two of the brothers together (one has been trapped inside a wrecked, overturned car), sticks a burning road flare inside the gas tank, then tosses the captives a knife and proposes that they try to free themselves by cutting off a hand at the wrist.

An exploding gas tank soon decides the matter for the hoodlums. Prior to meeting this grisly fate, the brothers had also run afoul of Caleb. Midway through the episode, they sneak into Caleb’s room in the boarding house, accosting him for making off with their suitcase full of stolen goods. The tables are turned, though, and Caleb ends up putting a scare into his visitors by unleashing a beastly roar. Caleb credits his (unseen) sister Merlyn with the supernatural assistance, but one can’t help but wonder if the boy (dubbed a “demon child” by one of the spooked brothers) is really infused with Buck’s ungodly powers.

 

Episode 9: “To Hell and Back”

The dashing Dr. Matt is forced to face the ugliness from his past when a drunken-driving accident involving a married couple in Trinity stirs the memory of the doctor’s tragic loss of his own wife and daughter. Naturally, the supernatural sheriff of Trinity, Lucas Buck, is the driving force behind the recent accident–part of a fiendish plot to send the doctor on a terrible guilt trip. The ever-tempting Buck then tries to detour Matt (a recovering alcoholic) from the road of sobriety by proffering a bottle and promising him “oblivion.”

Meanwhile, young Caleb fixates on his creepy neighbor Mr. Emmett (shades of Boo Radley), who is spied digging a conspicuously rectangular hole in his yard and howling the name “Omar” at the moon. To the impressionable Caleb (just returned from watching a horror movie), Mr. Emmett seems to be burying a dead body in his pumpkin patch. Caleb ultimately is proven right, but Mr. Emmett is not the nefarious figure he seems, as the episode emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality. This American Gothic theme is further sounded when Caleb’s cousin Gail tutors him about gardening: a plant with a sinister-sounding name like “snakeroot” isn’t actually poisonous, whereas “the ones with the pretty names, they can kill you.”

“To Hell and Back” ends on a seemingly heartwarming, all-dogs-go-to-heaven note, but Mr. Emmett’s love for, and loyalty toward, his deceased pet is overshadowed by the act of small-town malice that caused the canine’s death in the first place: someone put lye in Omar’s food!

Once again, the small details form a large part of American Gothic‘s allure: as Dr. Matt experiences a ghostly flashback to the scene of his family’s car accident, the audience is given a close-up of a Massachusetts license plate lined with the phrase “The Spirit of America.” Of course, in the context of this television series, that slogan connotes much more than patriotic pride.

 

Episode 10: “The Beast Within”

This tenth episode (in terms of narrative sequence, not air date) of American Gothic opens and closes with an eerie dream scene. Caleb moves down a long corridor lined with cells (arms stretch ghoulishly through the bars). The boy is drawn by a shirtless prisoner’s cries of “Father!” Caleb’s path to the prisoner is cut off by the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure (whom the viewer readily suspects is Sheriff Lucas Buck). This figure flashes a razor blade that is then passed to the prisoner, who promptly uses it to make a bloody incision in his own belly. Such events no doubt are the stuff of nightmare, but the setting here is what proves most striking to me: the Dark Tunnel has long been a topos of Gothic literature (cf. the catacombs in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the site of Hannibal Lector’s imprisonment in The Silence of the Lambs).

The plot of the episode centers on a hostage crisis that lands Caleb, his cousin Gail, Lucas, and Dr. Matt in hospital room with a gun-wielding escapee from the psych ward of a nearby military base. Complicating matters further is the fact that this man Artie (the prisoner from Caleb’s dream) also happens to be Deputy Ben’s brother. The horrors of warfare seem to have left Artie mentally unbalanced, but in true Gothic fashion, the man is also haunted by an incident from his distant past. While on a hunting trip as a child, he accidentally shot and killed his father.

In its very title, this episode conjures a lycanthropic image and brings to mind the Gothic theme of split identity that traces back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the most obvious level, the hidden beast here is the makeshift bomb that the munitions expert Artie has sewn inside his stomach. But “beast” also has infernal overtones, and thus the episode title can be seen to point to Lucas’s devilish presence inside the hospital room (we soon discover that the sheriff has orchestrated the entire hostage drama for his own nefarious purposes). At one point during the crisis Lucas admits to never carrying a gun (because shooting wouldn’t give the lawman a chance to impart a lesson to his antagonist), causing a sarcastic Gail to inquire if his demeanor should be perceived as an act of pacifism. “No ma’am,” Lucas bluntly replies. “You should view it as an act of seduction.” Never has the sheriff given stronger clue to his sinister nature; Lucas also marks his own dangerous duality as a Gothic hero-villain, hinting at the harm that’s always lurking behind his charm.

 

Episode 11: “Rebirth”

Initially, the premise of “Rebirth” makes it seem like an episode of The Ghost Whisperer rather than the grim fare the audience has come to expect from American Gothic. Tired of her angelic afterlife–of her inability to touch or feel anything when she makes her visitations to her brother Caleb–Merlyn works to take on corporeal form once again. She manages to reincarnate, assumes a new identity (“Halle Monroe”), revels in the joys of earthly existence, and even experiences love for the first time.

But all is not as saccharine as this synopsis might make seem. Early in the episode, Caleb is shown to be a lonesome object of derision, as a group of teens taunt him about his ignominious family history. Caleb has been tainted by the scandal surrounding the Temples, and observing his mistreatment, Merlyn appears to him lamenting that “It’s the sins of the Father, and it ain’t right.” This notion of generational plague is a recurrent theme in Gothic narratives.

Other Gothic trappings are also evident in “Rebirth”–literally, Ray (the motorcycle-riding local with whom Merlyn falls in love) is entrapped in a police cruiser when Sheriff Buck uses his powers to lock the innocent young man inside the vehicle on a suffocatingly hot afternoon. The episode also offers a bit of Poe-esque grotesquerie when Buck forces Ray to dig up Merlyn’s grave and discover that his dearly beloved girl has already departed. We are only given brief glimpse of Merlyn in decomposing repose, but it is no doubt a haunting image.

Buck, seeing through the “Halle” disguise,” eventually confronts Merlyn. He doesn’t seek to banish her, though. Instead, he encourages her to continue on frolicking in fleshly form. But Merlyn knows enough about Buck to recognize devilish temptation: she has returned to life by borrowing the spirit of a pregnant woman’s child, and if she doesn’t return that vital force to its rightful owner, the child will die before it has a chance to be born (perhaps killing the mother in the process). Rather than committing “the ultimate sin,” and losing Caleb’s faith in her in the process, Merlyn chooses to take a suicide dive off the side of a bridge. And so for the second time in the first half-season of the series, Merlyn suffers a shocking death.

 

Episode 12: “Ring of Fire”

The title of this episode might echo that of a Johnny Cash song, but on American Gothic Sheriff Lucas Buck is the ultimate Man in Black.

“Ring of Fire” (which never aired during the series’ single-season run) focuses on Gail’s quest to solve the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths years earlier in a fire at their newspaper office. Suspecting none other than Lucas Buck (whom Gail’s parents had been investigating at the time) to be the fatal firebug, Gail breaks into the sheriff’s home. Hoping to dig up some dirt, she finds a remarkably clean and modernly furnished residence, albeit one with some bits of macabre decor thrown into into the mix: a gargoyle squatting over the front doorway, a dark stone statue in the foyer, a stuffed raven and an occult tome on a table.

As Gail grows more preoccupied by her search for answers, she suffers a nightmare that makes the shocking final scene from Carrie seem tame by comparison. She envisions herself visiting her parents’ grave site on a bright, sunny day, only to have the pair of moldering corpses suddenly rip through the ground and demand that she avenge their murder.

Effusing his trademark seductive charm, Lucas offers to lead Gail to the truth (provided that she agree to welcome his future sexual advances). Gail grudgingly agrees, and quickly regrets the decision. The sheriff forewarned her that “no one’s exactly who they appear to be,” but Gail learns that lesson the hard way. She discovers (via Lucas-facilitated flashbacks) that the childhood she recalls as idyllic was actually anything but. Her father was guilty of both spousal abuse and sadistic violence towards his own daughter (apparently Gail had repressed the memory of how she got that burn mark on her arm). Even more sordid details emerge: at the time of her death Gail’s mother was pregnant with a child conceived during an extramarital affair with Gage Temple (father of Gail’s cousin Caleb!). Gage was also the arsonist who ended up killing both Christine and Peter Emory (not realizing that his lover was still inside the office with her wretch of a husband when he set fire to it).

At the start of “Ring of Fire,” a librarian tells Gail that “the secret history of the South is hidden in blood. Genealogy. Family.” It’s a distinctly Faulknerian sentiment, one that bookends with a comment Lucas makes later in the episode. In absolute echo of Absalom, Absalom!, Lucas observes: “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even the past.” His words strike at one of the most central themes of the Gothic: the haunting and harrying impingement of prior history on the present moment.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 1-6

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 1: (Pilot)

The opening-credits sequence features a voiceover from Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Even as he discourses about the American Dream, Buck strikes an ominous note: “For those who follow my lead, life can be a paradise.  But for those who don’t, it can be a mighty rough road.” Apparently this sheriff wields plenty of influence in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, and has no qualms about abusing his power.

In the first scene (set in an isolated rural home), protagonist Caleb Temple is trying to celebrate his tenth birthday, but his father Gage spoils the paltry party. Incensed by his daughter Merlyn’s ceaseless chanting (“Someone’s at the door”), he proceeds to attack her with a shovel. The 16-year-old Merlyn has been traumatized into an autistic-type state by something she witnessed a decade earlier (and which is revealed at episode’s end: the rape of her mother by Buck).

Gage is obviously not in his right mind, and later claims that his violent actions were somehow directed by the nefarious sheriff. Perhaps the accusation is not that far-fetched, considering that Buck is the one who finishes off the wounded Merlyn by breaking her neck. Mercy killing or sinister murder? The ambiguity here points to the duality of the Buck’s character. At once charming and chilling, he is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain.

Duplicity is a trait displayed by other characters as well. By day, Selena Coombs is a sweet-seeming grade school teacher; by night, she’s a cunning nympho in cahoots with Lucas Buck.

American Gothic sports a heap of dead relatives and skeletons in the proverbial closet. Dr. Crower, an alcoholic, has lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Caleb’s cousin Gail was orphaned when a fire (deliberately set?) claimed the lives of both her parents. And Caleb’s mother ostensibly committed suicide ten years earlier by jumping out a window (or was she pushed by Buck, who was there at the time?).

The most memorable moment from the first episode finds Buck whistling the theme music to The Andy Griffith Show while approaching Gage’s jail cell (where he then tries to force the man to sign documents granting the sheriff legal custody of Caleb). The parodic whistling serves as the perfect indicator that Trinity is no bucolic Southern town–it’s Mayberry with a very dark underbelly.

 

Episode 2: “A Tree Grows in Trinity”

The second episode of the series draws on a pair of Gothic hallmarks: fearful flight and cruel imprisonment. “A Tree Grows in Trinity” picks up where the series premiere left off: with Caleb on the run from Sheriff Lucas Buck (after setting his own house on fire to escape him). Caleb’s desperate exodus leads him first into a cornfield, where he almost collides with a decidedly devilish scarecrow.

Eventually Caleb hides out in an abandoned hunting lodge, but is shocked to find that the place is already occupied. What at first seems a monstrous figure is actually a tied-up, traumatized man. As the episode unfolds, viewers learn that this is Rafael Santo, a Miami reporter who has been missing for months after coming to Trinity to investigate the “Bermuda Triangle of tourism.” He is now held captive in the lodge after running afoul of Lucas. Perhaps even worse, he serves as the personal sex slave for the sheriff’s lascivious sidekick Selena.

Coroner Curtis Webb is engaged by Lucas to perform a rudimentary autopsy of Caleb’s sister Merlyn (and to ignore the evidence that the girl died at the sheriff’s hand). The ghostly Merlyn, though, opposes such machinations, dubbing Webb’s tape recordings with the message “Someone’s at the door.” She also freaks out the coroner when her corpse’s head (now wide-eyed and turned to the side) somehow appears out from under the sheet that had been covering it. Merlyn’s final touch is the bloody injunction scrawled on the autopsy room door: “Don’t bury the truth.”

Buck later expresses his displeasure with the coroner’s handling of the autopsy by leaving the severed head of Webb’s pet goat Eli inside the refrigerator stationed on the front porch of the family home–a sinister riff on a memorable scene from The Godfather.

The episode, though, best lives up to the show’s title in the scene where Caleb spies a pair of cemetery caretakers arranging the wooden markers at the graves of his father and sister. Teapot and her daddy Harlan are quintessential hicks, in both costume and demeanor. Harlan jokes about the adjacent burials (“Just because he killed her don’t mean they can’t share the same worms”), and the chortling, overalls-wearing Teapot teases her daddy about his misspelling on Gage’s grave marker (“REST IN PEASE”). American Gothic seems quite conscious of its art-world namesake here, as the figures of Teapot and Harlan could have stepped right out of a Grant Wood painting. All that’s missing from the scene is the iconic hay-fork, and it would be no real surprise (based on the way the series has developed thus far) to see such a tool used pointedly in a future episode.

 

Episode 3: “Eye of the Beholder”

In the third episode of the series, Lucas shows just what a devilish Buck he is, going to ungodly lengths to make sure he is appointed Caleb’s legal guardian. First, the sheriff tries to discredit Dr. Crower (with whom Caleb wants to stay) by causing a patient to have an epileptic seizure while on the operating table for a simple gall-bladder procedure. Then Lucas coerces anesthesiologist Dan Truelane to speak against Crower at the upcoming custody hearing by acknowledging the doctor’s past drinking problems.

The two-faced Lucas sends an ostensible wedding present to Dan and his recent bride Cheryl, but the ornate looking glass he gifts them with has some supernatural qualities. Cheryl ends up enthralled by her reflection, and turns uncharacteristically libidinous. The sheriff assures Dan that he will get his old wife back if he does he part to support Lucas’s case at the hearing. Unable to bear Cheryl’s strange behavior, though, Dan destroys the mirror in a fit of fury–and Cheryl’s own face is somehow simultaneously disfigured (shades of Dorian Gray).

Having also worked his charm with Judge Halpern, Lucas figures the custody hearing is guaranteed to be decided in his favor. But the judge throws him a curveball by decreeing that Caleb will go live at Loris Holt’s boarding house (a multi-storied manse that happens to built on an old graveyard). Incensed by this turn of events, Lucas warns of retribution. Soon thereafter, Halpern drops dead after spotting a raven peering in his window. This judge will be presiding in Trinity nevermore.

“Eye of the Beholder” captures one of the essential elements of the American Gothic: the disparity between public persona and private nature, between surface appearance and ulterior motive. Lucas might strike a good ol’ boy pose, but he’s really bad news for the townspeople. And his determination to bring Caleb under his wing hardly stems from altruism; he’s carrying out a personal agenda rather than performing a civic duty. God help Caleb if he ever ends up raised in the sheriff’s sinister image.

 

Episode 4: “Damned if You Don’t”

In this fourth episode (with a fatalistic title pointing to the no-win situations that Sheriff Buck presents to the townspeople of Trinity), American Gothic once again proves that is well aware of its literary heritage. The episode introduces “Wash Sutpen,” whose first and last names harken back to the characters of Wash Jones and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!. The echoing of Faulkner’s novel continues with the revelation that Wash Sutpen murdered the “fellow who was taking liberties” with his teenage daughter–recalling Wash Jones’s scything of Thomas Sutpen after the latter insults the honor of Jones’s daughter Milly. Actually, though, Wash Sutpen has gunned down the wrong man; the real culprit was his employee Carter Bowen, who takes over Sutpen’s junkyard business when the latter is sent to jail (how’s that for small-town intrigue?). At the time of Wash Sutpen’s violent outburst, Sheriff Buck helped cover up Carter’s lechery; now he expects a favor in return (he wants to hire Carter’s sexy 15-year-old daughter as a personal assistant). When Carter refuses,the Machiavellian Buck reintroduces (the allegedly paroled) Wash Sutpen to Carter’s family.

The Bowen junkyard is like an automotive graveyard, with rusted hulks (including, fittingly, a hearse) littering the grounds. While visiting the place, Gail Emory stumbles upon the Gothic ruin once driven by her late parents. Ever since returning to Trinity, Gail–a reporter by trade–has been determined to look into the circumstances surrounding her folks’ deaths years earlier, and when she proceeds here to search the abandoned vehicle, she discovers a mysterious key inside a magnetized box adhered beneath the glove compartment.

The battle between good and evil is one of the show’s most overt themes, but American Gothic also makes its points in more subtle ways.  In the cleverly-arranged closing scene of “Damned If You Don’t,” Sheriff Buck stands in the junkyard orchestrating his latest devilish deal. A derelict bus looms over his shoulder in the background, and the one-word sign above the back window makes clear the type of service this vehicle once provided. This was once a “CHURCH” bus, but its days of transporting the faithful throughout Trinity have long since passed.

 

Episode 5: “Dead to the World”

The fifth episode of the series presents three different storylines. First, Caleb prepares to enter an archery competition at a local carnival. As always, Sheriff Buck insinuates himself in Caleb’s affairs, buying him a state-of-the-art bow & arrow and instructing him about the use of psychological warfare. “It’s not who you are, it’s who people think you are,” the sheriff tells the boy. He’s lecturing about having swagger, but Buck also sounds the American Gothic theme of duplicity–the gap between appearance and reality, public persona and inner character. Meanwhile, Buck’s lover Selena prevents Boone Mackenzie (Caleb’s best friend and chief rival in the competition) from practicing his archery by keeping him after school under the pretense that he needs to work on his penmanship. You know matters have really gotten sordid when even your grade-school teacher has a hidden agenda.

In the second storyline, Deputy Ben deals with some domestic strife involving his ex-wife and young son. Barbara Joy is physically abused by her current husband Waylon Flood, who also bullies his stepson. Ben tries to deal with the tyrant man-to-man, but Sheriff Buck tilts the playing field by using his powers to force the cabinet maker to fall onto his own table saw.

The main thrust of the episode, though, comes from Gail’s investigation of the seeming murder of her former childhood friend Holly Gallagher by Buck. The flashback scene opening the episode shows Buck deliberately driving Holly’s car off a bridge after she threatens to expose his “dirty little secret”–the fact that he is Caleb’s real father (Holly works at the hospital where Caleb’s mom died, and she assists her boyfriend Buck by stealing the file containing Caleb’s birth record). But as Gail digs up the ten-year-old dirt (and literally has Holly’s rusted vehicle dredged up from the river bottom), she discovers that Holly didn’t die in the accident. Having suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation when the car went underwater, Holly has been hidden away in a sanitarium for the past decade. Her mother Janice, a cosmetics saleswoman, has quite a gift for concealment. Unwilling to accept that her “perfect little girl” is now an invalid, Janice (with Buck’s help) leads the townspeople of Trinity to believe that Holly died tragically. Talk about dirty little secrets…

 

Episode 6: “Potato Boy”

This episode of American Gothic actually never aired during the show’s 1995 run, perhaps because it is rife with sexual innuendo (a lonesome Selena gets frisky with ten-year-old Caleb during an after-school lesson in her apartment). Also, religion is debased throughout: a dead bug floats belly-up in a basin of holy water; a church looks like the setting for a splatter movie after a priest spills blood-red wine all over during communion; Sheriff Buck (providing voiceover) also wonders if one the prim and proper churchgoers is “a screamer or a squealer.” Yet anyone who has read The Monk knows that the negative portrayal of religion is a traditional feature of the Gothic.

The Potato Boy of the episode’s title is a Boo Radley-type bogey that has captured the imagination of Trinity’s children. Rumor has it that the boy is the bastard child of creepy Old Man Warren and the young woman he imprisoned and impregnated. She died delivering him, since the boy allegedly weighed 30 pounds at birth  He was also wretchedly deformed (no eyes; giant claws for hands) and thus has been kept locked away in the moldering Warren house ever since. Turns out, the Potato Boy is inside, and he is disfigured, but he has a beautiful soul. In another example of the episode’s coupling of religion and the grotesque, the Potato Boy is given an angelic voice (which he uses to belt out church hymns).

The episode shows that Trinity is populated with secret sinners. The school teacher is a harlot; the local psychiatrist is a pedophile; the priest is a dope fiend (who doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to Christian forgiveness: he’s disowned his wanton daughter, Selena, banishing her from his church [how a priest has come to have a daughter is a question the episode skirts]). And of course, the sheriff is the most duplicitous figure of all. But give the devil his due: Lucas Buck makes a good point when he advises Caleb, “Be careful what you see in a man’s eyes. It might not be the truth.” In Trinity, South Carolina, the windows to the soul tend to be darkly shaded.

The Terror: Definition of?

There is so much to like about The Terror, AMC’s just-completed historical horror series centering on the ill-fated quest to locate the Northwest Passage. Time and again, viewers are treated to stunning visuals (those long-range and overhead shots of the icebound ships are nothing short of sublime). There’s nightmare fuel to burn: grisly images of amputations, postmortems, scurvy-plagued faces, cannibalized corpses, dismemberings and savagings by a mammoth monster. The show is also stocked with incredible performances: Ciaran Hinds as the pompous and incompetent Sir John Franklin; Jared Harris as the tormented yet honorable Captain Crozier; Paul Ready as the aptly-named anatomist, Dr. Goodsir; Adam Nagaitis as the cretinous, Kurtzian caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey.

Ironically, though, for a show concerning a protracted struggle to survive, The Terror often feels rushed. Key scenes from Dan Simmons’s epic novel (e.g. the death of Sir John) flash by too quickly, too incompletely. The creature’s attack on ice master Thomas Blanky, one of the most extensive and suspenseful chapters in the book, is hardly allowed to play to its harrowing extreme. At the same time, certain plotlines are overemphasized: in the latter episodes, political upheaval (the battle between splintered camps after the voyagers abandon ship) eclipses both the monstrous threat of the Tuunbaq and the grueling ordeal of an overland trek (the way the men are so casually dressed, one might almost forget they are crossing terribly frigid terrain). For those familiar with Simmons’s The Terror, the abridgment/alteration of the narrative is severe. In a ten-episode series, surely there was space for a more faithful adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest misstep here is that the show presents too little of the Tuunbaq. The creature appears much less frequently than in the novel, and as a result, much of the tension is sacrificed. Sense of the crews’ frightful plight, their years-long subjection to sudden and spectacular attack by an Arctic terrorist, is undermined. When the Tuunbaq does show up on screen, he looks clearly computer-generated (and to me at least, strangely cute). He seems like a polar bear on steroids, not a sly and malicious entity of supernatural evil. By presenting the Tuunbaq as an almost tragic Inuit figure, the series undercuts both his mythological grandeur and his role as daunting adversary.

Make no mistake: AMC’s The Terror is a riveting drama, and well worth watching. I can appreciate the fact that adapting Simmons’s beast of a novel–which places innumerable characters in inhospitable environments–is no easy task. And naturally, changes are always necessitated by the translation of fiction into a visual medium. Nevertheless, the reworking of the source material here is so radical, it strikes me as an act of hubris: the show’s creators suggest they can take Simmons’s original story and tell it so much better by following an ever-diverging route. While an impressive effort, The Terror, much like the Franklin Expedition itself, falls regrettably short of the ultimate glory it might have achieved.

 

A Diet to Die For

I defy anyone to name a better–and more American Gothic–current series than Santa Clarita Diet.

The phrase “bloody brilliant” is perhaps the most apt one for the show, whose second season is now streaming on Netflix. Let’s start with the stellar performances by the main cast: Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a realtor mysteriously reborn as a flesh-craving cannibal; Liv Hewson as her endearingly snarky and badass daughter Abby; Skyler Gisondo as nerdy neighbor Eric Bemis. Timothy Olyphant, though, takes the cake as Joel Hammond, the overwhelmed patriarch struggling to keep his family intact–and out of jail. Olyphant’s work is pure comedic genius, and all the more Emmy-worthy when one considers just how much the Deadwood/Justified actor is playing against tough-guy type.

No show in recent memory has had me bursting into laughter as much as Santa Clarita Diet does. The comedy ranges from the silly to the witty, the slapstick to the sarcastic; it’s a product of both dialogue and choreography (keep an eye out for a hilarious tango scene between Joel and Gerald McCraney’s Colonel Ed Thule). An undeniable blackness tinges the humor, given Sheila’s uncanny appetites and the continuously-blurred line between corpse and cuisine (viewers disgusted by “microwaved elbow” had best find different fare than what’s regularly served here). Gross-outs and horrific sight gags appear in full Fangorial splendor; this show never shies away from arterial spray. My favorite bit of macabre wackiness from Season 2 involves the character of Gary (Sheila’s first victim last season), now reduced to a decapitated–yet animate–head ensconced on the neck of a flower vase.

With its quirky and edgy humor, and depiction of the dark underside of sunny California suburbia, Santa Clarita Diet proves reminiscent of the former Showtime series Weeds. Hopefully the Netflix effort can continue to walk the line of entertaining zaniness without jumping the shark and landing in utter ridiculousness (as Weeds did towards the end of its run). Two seasons in, though, the writing is nothing less than impeccable. With quick-moving half-hour episodes and cliffhanger plot complications (as the Hammonds’ attempts to find a cure–not to mention the next meal–for Sheila are repeatedly stymied), Santa Clarita is the one diet that encourages bingeing. And gluten or guilt are never a concern as the consumer of this gory smorgasbord is left positively stuffed.

X-coriation

If you didn’t catch “My Struggle III,” the first episode of season 11 of The X-Files, you missed a stunning transformation.

Apparently, Fox Mulder has turned into Philip Marlowe.

There’s plenty not to like (as Daniel Kurland points out in an extended critique over at Bloody Disgusting) about this opening episode, but to me the most cringe-worthy decision was to have David Duchovny launch into several voice-over monologues as his character is driving to track down the Cigarette Smoking Man. Such sudden and protracted narration creates a jarring note in and of itself, and the actual content of Mulder’s expressed thoughts makes these scenes that much more difficult to sit through. His lines sound incredibly stilted, as he frames what is at stake and poses a series of questions to himself (Kurland’s article cites the following passage as a prime example of Mulder’s purple turn: “I was running only on adrenaline and Scully’s premonitions, but was it hope I should be feeling, or fear that Scully’s right and that a man that I had come to despise, my own father, was alive? And if he were, he had become mad with power.” ). If the writing here were any lazier, Mulder would be in danger of going comatose behind the wheel. Not since Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun has there been such laughable use of hard-boiled voice-over; the problem is, the audience is meant to take Mulder’s words seriously.

Critics who screened the first half of season 11 have reassured despairing fans that subsequent (monster- rather than mythology-based) episodes do get much better. So there is hope that The X-Files can go down swinging in what appears to be its final round. Based solely on the premiere episode, though, the show looks like a washed-up fighter who unretires to chase one last payday and ends up giving a legacy-tarnishing and utterly embarrassing performance.

Dead Wrong

These days, the Internet is riddled with fanboy rants (“This show sucks!”) and media critics’ alarmist (and largely click-baiting) articles about the declining ratings of The Walking Dead. While I don’t have a lot of patience for such rhetoric, I will admit that AMC’s hit zombie series has gone into decline. Rather than just take potshots, though, I would like to consider why the show has gotten off track. I offer the following half-dozen reasons:

  • The ensemble has gotten too numerable. As TWD plays out its “All Out War” storyline this season, the show finds itself juggling too many characters (in too many different locales). Major figures end up being cast aside for weeks on end. When they do reappear, they are prone to unconvincing speechifying (about topics of suddenly vital personal import) or stupid decisions that land them in peril (e.g. Aaron and Enid’s ill-advised excursion to recruit Oceanside–the very group of women that has had their weapons previously stolen by Rick’s forces). In seasons past, TWD has thrived in its depiction of the moment-to-moment struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world; this season, it seems more preoccupied in setting up its various characters for Dramatic Moments.
  • This “All Out War” is a little too Tolkienesque for this writer’s comfort. TWD is striving too hard for epic grandeur with its collision of battling factions (the gravitas of King Ezekial’s arc is also reminiscent of Theoden’s withdrawn moping in The Two Towers). Accordingly, an opportunity for grim and gritty realism–the inglorious gore of warfare–has been missed.
  • Negan’s the reason. Even those who find his dialogue tiresome and juvenile cannot deny that Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a commanding performance as the smiley sociopath. But the problem is, Negan is so colorful, he ends up overshadowing the other characters and making them appear drab by comparison. At the same time, it’s hard to get too invested in Negan, as the audience knows this archvillain is destined to be defeated.
  • The Trash (People) buildup is a mounting problem. These refugees from a bad 80’s sci-fi movie are jarringly out of place in the world of TWD. Their existence is nonsensical, from their strange speech patterns (as ridiculous as King Ezekiel might come across at times, at least there is a rationale for his affected rhetoric) to the head-scratching choice to live in junkyard squalor. To its credit, TWD is always trying to push the envelope of originality, but the show arguably has gone too far with this tribe of exotic squatters.
  • TWD has gotten carried away with a modernist storytelling approach, in which the timeline is fragmented and the narrative backtracks and overlaps. At best, this causes a loss of immediacy; at worst (as seems to be the case this season) it results in viewer confusion and an overall disjointed feel to the proceedings. The show might be best served by following a more linear trajectory, and flashing back selectively for special episodes (such as Season 6’s “Here’s Not Here”).
  • Lastly, in the midst of “All Out War,” TWD seems to have forgotten about its eponymous monsters. In the mid-season finale, I counted a single walker shambling around (perhaps the undead were downplayed throughout to make Carl’s closing reveal that much more shocking). Some of the best aspects of the war narrative thus far were the siege tactics Rick & company employed to surround the Sanctuary with walkers; alas, even that came to an abrupt (and thus far off-screen) end. TWD would be wise to remember that its rotten populace serves as more than mere background noise or hand-cannon fodder.

In all honesty, I still find TWD to be an enjoyable show, and am sure to tune in weekly. Still, I cannot deny the recent decline in overall quality. Hopefully, things can turn around again, and the current stumble doesn’t lead to an all-out sprawl.

The Allure of Lore

Aaron Mahnke’s popular podcast Lore has grown into a multimedia phenomenon, recently expanding into a book series and a six-episode anthology series streaming on Amazon Prime. It is this televisual incarnation that I would like to briefly address here, focusing on its various attractions.

What do viewers get beyond the merely auditory experience of the podcast? For starters, there is some incredibly creepy animation on display (both in the show’s title sequence and within the episodes themselves), presenting unconventional imagery worthy of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, or Tim Burton. Interspersed photos and video clips meanwhile add an arresting realism to the proceedings, providing glimpses of crime scenes or outre events (e.g. the radio-broadcast attempt to contact Harry Houdini via seance).

The episodes’ most distinctive feature, though, is their use of dramatic reenactments. These creations have all the haunting atmosphere, jolting scares, and production value of a full-length horror film. Fans of Magic or Annabelle are sure to squirm delightfully when watching the story of Key West’s legendary malevolent doll Robert (a figure who makes Chucky look like Strawberry Shortcake).

The dramatizations are also expertly paced, as they build to moments of heightened suspense and then cut away to the narrating Mahnke’s insightful commentary or segue into interpolated coverage of related topics/stories. One thing thankfully missing here, it should be noted, is the podcast’s breakaway to commercials, with Mahnke spending considerable time hawking sponsored products.

The Amazon series might not be well-suited for binge watching; smaller, periodic bites are apt to be relished most. A pattern does emerge, though, when the episodes are screened in close sequence. Again and again, we witness people, driven by desperation or derangement, commit disturbing acts against their closest and most beloved kin. While Lore (which deals in witches and werewolves, revenants and changelings) more than slakes viewers’ thirst for knowledge of the macabre and offbeat, it also serves to remind us that the most frightening monsters are those that hide within the human psyche.

Can Things Get Any Stranger Than This?

After some belated, post-Thanksgiving binging, I have finally finished Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. This new batch (Gremlins reference intended) of episodes was very well done, and transformed me into one thoroughly satisfied viewer. At the same time, though, I was plagued with concern at season’s end, because I can’t help but wonder: is Stranger Things henceforth doomed to diminishing returns?

The show’s sophomore effort adeptly (and no doubt self-conconsciously) follows the Alien to Aliens trajectory: the blight is more widespread, and a singular menace expands into a multitude of monstrous antagonists. And just as Sigourney Weaver’s explosive heroics at the end of the second film seem to shut the door on LV-426’s alien-infestation problem, Eleven’s climactic closing of the gate (mending the plot-inciting rift she accidentally created back in Season 1) in the finale appears to draw the two-season story arc to its logical endpoint. At least until the just-when-you-though-it-was-over final shot shows the shadow of the Mind Flayer still looming over Hawkins. But if the coming seasons of Stranger Things continue to reach out with Lovecraftian tentacles and the same cosmic-horror Sturm und Drang, could viewers grow fed up with the Upside Down? The dilemma here is that if the show actually takes the story in a whole new direction, it inevitably does so at the risk of believability, since its hard to imagine something else significantly paranormal just happening to be visited upon the same small town in the middle of the Indianan nowhere.

Season 2 repeatedly recurs to the previous year’s episodes, sounding variations on established themes. For instance, Upside-Down-linked Christmas lights festooned the Byers’ house last season; this time around, it’s a mosaic of crayon drawings that aids Joyce’s attempt to rescue her son Will from otherworldly clutches. But can Stranger Things keep dipping into the same well? At what point do such callbacks have to be called formulaic? When does familiar imagery (I’m looking at you, blood-dripping-from-Eleven’s-nostril) start to become cliched and uninteresting?

The nostalgic feel of the series is undeniably a big factor in its success, and timely pop cultural references are just as plentiful in Season 2. Again, though, I worry that this can’t last. My concern isn’t that the writers will run out of 80’s source material to invoke, but that the expectation of such allusive maneuvers (the Internet is inundated with enumerations of Stranger Things’ movie/music/Stephen King references) will cause the Easter eggs to grow too numerous and distractingly overt rather than subtly dispersed.

Perhaps my biggest fear is that Stranger Things will lose dramatic steam if it continues to allow its cast to survive dire straits. Call it the X-Files factor: the weekly jeopardy that Scully and Mulder were placed in failed to be terribly moving, because there was little doubt that the duo would be right back on the case in the next episode. Conversely, The Walking Dead creates maximal tension because the audience is painfully aware that any character, of any age, can go at any time (for me, the fate of Sophia remains one of the biggest gut-punches that show ever threw). Will Stranger Things ever have the courage–and the green light from Netflix–to kill off someone other than a minor (adult) character or a Hawking Lab spear-carrier?

Lastly, time does not appear to be on the side of the producers of Stranger Things. As can already be seen in Season 2, the show’s young actors are maturing rapidly. They are likely to be approaching puberty’s far border by the time Season 3’s episodes roll around. At that point, will these characters still strike viewers as cute and lovable, as vulnerable? As Mike and company move from middle school to high school, will their nerdy activities continue to be endearing or start to feel awkward to behold?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeonly critic or doomsayer. To date, the Duffer Brothers have given us no reason whatsoever to doubt their storytelling prowess, so it’s not inconceivable that they will masterfully navigate any potential obstacles in the show’s ongoing path. I am holding out hope that my concerns will prove unfounded, and that Stranger Things will furnish more episodes of the same high quality, yet also marked by an entertaining difference.