Review: American Gothic 1×1 (US: CBS; UK: Amazon Prime)

What's the point?


In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Thursdays, Amazon Prime

Does drama need to have a point? Tricky question – indeed, one I’m increasingly asking in this age of ‘peak television’. Obviously drama needs to engage the audience (although Mr Bertolt Brecht might have something to say about it, were he still alive), so to that extent it needs a point. But does it need to speak to something, have a message or do anything beyond that engagement?

American Gothic certainly pushes that particular envelope to the limit, because for the life of me, in common with an increasing number of TV shows, I can’t see the point of it at the moment, beyond it filling the airwaves for an hour. Not having read any press notes about it, I assumed it might have something to do with either

  1. The Grant Wood painting
    American Gothic by Grant Wood
  2. The 1995 TV series with Gary Cole

But it didn’t take long to realise that at most it wanted to tie into the name of the painting while being ‘a bit gothic’ – especially since half the main cast aren’t American. The show concerns one of those huge American families you get in TV shows, this one a blue collar Boston bunch who have done good for themselves, thanks to dad (Jamey Sheridan)’s construction company. Elder daughter Juliet Rylance (The Kick) is running for mayor and younger son Justin Chatwin (Shameless) is a newspaper cartoonist, while younger daughter Megan Ketch (Gotham, Blue Bloods) and mum Virginia Madsen (Dune, Highlander 2) don’t do an awful lot but have husbands, one of whom is a cop.

During one of Rylance’s press conferences, Sheridan has a heart attack. Is it age or could it be something to do with the recently discovered new evidence in the case of the notorious ‘Silver Bell’ serial killer? Whatever it is, it’s time to lure back wayward eldest son Antony Starr (Outrageous Fortune, Banshee), who mysteriously disappeared 14 years ago, just as the Silver Bell killings ended. And coincidentally, what should the kids find stashed away in a box in the house but a whole bunch of silver bells like the one’s the killer used to leave? Is Dad the killer? Or is Starr, who even if he didn’t look like a serial killer, shaves with a hunting knife? Or were they accomplices? Or was it someone else in the family? Whatever it is, it’s probably genetic, judging by the way Chatwin’s young son has started cutting up cats…

All dark and nasty, albeit with almost nothing to say, just a mystery that needs solving. Except American Gothic also has a weirdly comedic vibe to it. No laughs at all, unless you count people not noticing a car being crushed behind them, and most of the cast are as dead serious as can be, but Madsen, Chatwin and incidental music composer Jeff Russo (Fargo, Power, Extant) are all utterly convinced this is supposed to be a dark comedy, judging by the various choices they’ve made.

Drama, comedy or dramedy, though, American Gothic isn’t very good at any of them. The plot is a composite of all the dafter novels you could pick up in an airport book store, five minutes before your flight was due to board. The dialogue is arch most of the time, but rarely seems to have been intended to do more than sketch, rather than give depth – when Ketch reveals that her husband has just had a promotion, everyone congratulates them for all of five seconds… before instantly moving on to explaining the plot at each other again. You’d think they might ask a question, maybe even two, wouldn’t you? And even if they didn’t, you’d think Ketch and co might be a bit miffed, wouldn’t you? But no.

Starr’s the show’s main draw, doing an even less animated, more menacing version of his Banshee performance, although Rylance is no shirk, Chatwin is engagingly dotty and Madsen gets hidden depths in the last few minutes of the episode. But the script simply doesn’t give them much to work with and it doesn’t give you a reason to want to watch the rest of the show. Despite the entire kitchen sink of drama tools being thrown at the screen, it’s a show about nothing – and not in a Seinfeld way. It’s not saying anything about social mobility, the rich, families, serial killers, Boston, politics, the police or anything else, unless it accidentally stumbles into it. The characters exist merely to drive the plot and/or provide ambiguity. There aren’t even any real gothic qualities to it, beyond the occasional shot of mist and old stonework.

So if American Gothic doesn’t know why you should you watch it, beyond an arbitrary mystery that needs solving, can you think of a good reason?