Forgotten Shows: American Gothic

TV networks cancel shows all the time. In many cases, it’s because the shows simply aren’t very good. Sometimes it’s because of politics: a network like Fox, for example, might cancel a show made by Universal to make room for a show made by 20th Century Fox (thus, keeping the profits “in the company”). Sometimes they’ll ditch a show (or bunch of shows) simply because they’re “changing their image”. Sometimes, though, networks just don’t know a good thing when they see it. They’ll order a show, and when the show underperforms, they’ll move it around the schedule or hassle the show’s writers into making changes. And sometimes, they’ll simply let a show die.

This is the case with American Gothic, a show that debuted on CBS in 1995. Set in the fictional town of Trinity, South Carolina, the show is the story of Lucas Buck (Gary Cole), an evil small town sheriff with a twist: he’s actually evil. The show never comes right out and says that Lucas Buck is the Devil, or a demon, or simply a human being that sold his soul to Satan for complete control over a small Southern town. But the effect is the same: Buck knows everything that happens in Trinity. He sometimes even knows what’s going to happen in advance (which is especially handy if you’re a corrupt law enforcement officer, no?). He can convince people into doing things simply by looking deep into their eyes. He can touch things and see events in the past. And since he knows everything about everybody, he’s able to help the townspeople in their more mundane affairs (like lending them money or settling neighborhood disputes). This creates an unknowing army of loaylists in the town. Lucas Buck, it seems, has everything all wrapped up.

But not quite. A few years ago, Buck raped a local woman, which led to the birth of his (as yet unacknowledged) son, Caleb Temple. Caleb’s mother to committed suicide shortly after Caleb was born, and as the show begins, we see Caleb’s father (Gage Temple, played by Sonny Shroyer – Enos from Dukes of Hazzard!) commit “suicide” under suspicious circumstances. Caleb’s older sister – Merlyn, played by Sarah Paulson of Deadwood and Studio 60 fame – witnessed the rape and had been a basket case ever since, spending her time rocking back and forth in a chair saying “someone’s at the door” over and over again. When Sheriff Buck goes to the Temple house to “reclaim” Caleb as his son after Gage’s suicide, Buck breaks Merlyn’s neck, causing her instant death. Later on, Caleb is sent to the local hospital for “observation” while the authorities figure out what to do with him now that his entire family is dead. While there, Merlyn’s ghost comes to him and begs him to leave:

American Gothic

Caleb then goes on the run from Sheriff Buck. As Caleb is only around 10 years old, his options are limited. However, Caleb is not alone. Former Trinity resident Gail Emory (Paige Turco), a “big city” reporter from Charleston, arrives back in town to learn more about the mysterious death of her parents (who ran the local newspaper and opposed Sheriff Buck on many occasions, only to die in a mysterious fire). Emory is joined by Dr. Matt Crower (Jake Weber), a “Yankee doctor” that’s new to Trinity. Emory, Crower and Merlyn’s ghost take Caleb under their wings, and do everything they can to keep Caleb away from Sheriff Buck.

The show, then, is a classic battle of “Good vs. Evil”, with a lot of supernatural elements thrown in for good measure. Although some of the special effects seem dated at this point, it’s the storytelling aspects of the show that make American Gothic so great. Although the heart of the story is about Lucas and Caleb, there are also a lot of small town regulars thrown in, giving the show a bit of a Twin Peaks feel. The producers of the show also get points for filming much of the series on location in South Carolina; you’ll often see tobacco plants and peach trees in the background instead of the mountains and deserts of California you so often see in other series.

And those of you that only know Gary Cole for his comedy roles in Office Space, Talladega Nights and the Brady Bunch films are in for a real treat: Cole’s Lucas Buck character is very well played. He’s “subtly evil”. There’s nothing about Buck that’s not human, or blatantly evil. There’s just something about him that gives you the willies and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Caleb Temple: I hate you!
Sheriff Buck: And someday, we’ll make that hate work for you.

And if I still haven’t interested you yet, take a look at the show’s pedigree: it was developed and produced by Shawn Cassidy (yes, the former teen heartthrob; he also produced the ABC show Invasion). Sam Raimi (the Spiderman films) and David Eick (Battlestar Galactica) also produced the series. So it’s got the deets.

The series is available from Netflix and can also be purchased from Amazon here.


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