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DVD Review: American Gothic: The Complete Series

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There’s something seriously amiss in the coastal town of Trinity, South Carolina. The problem is the local sheriff, Lucas Buck. But this isn’t your stereotypical Southern redneck sheriff. No, Sheriff Buck is evil to the core, evil of the supernatural kind. He’s not into this for anything as banal as graft. He wants power — and people’s souls.

Sheriff Buck (played by Gary Cole) is one of the center points of the short-lived television series American Gothic. On the 10th anniversary of the show and in time for Halloween, Universal has released American Gothic: The Complete Series. But to simply describe the series as a horror show about an evil sheriff does it serious injustice.

Although heavily tinged with horror and dark, foreboding settings, American Gothic is also a drama, a thriller and, not infrequently, comedic and satirical. Simply summarized, Sheriff Buck wants control of 10-year-old Caleb Temple, a boy he thinks is his son as the result of raping Caleb’s mother. Caleb’s mother committed suicide in the hospital after he was born and witnessing the rape left Caleb’s sister, Merlyn (Sarah Paulson), basically catatonic.

Created by Shaun Cassidy, the show opens with Merlyn being murdered on Caleb’s 10th birthday and Caleb’s father dying in jail after being arrested for that crime. With everyone but Caleb and Buck unaware that Buck claims to be his father, Caleb’s cousin, Gail Emory (Paige Turco), leaves her job as a reporter in Charleston to come to his aid when she hears of these events. She’s also on a mission to investigate the deaths of her parents in a mysterious fire in Trinity 20 years earlier. Also watching out for Caleb is a Harvard-trained Yankee doctor, Matt Crower (Jake Weaver), who’s come to Trinity on the run from demons of his own. Merlyn also keeps reappearing to try to watch over and guide Caleb as he tries to stay on the right path and resist Sheriff Buck’s charms and enticements.

Yet stories of good and evil abound. What hooks you here is the genre bending, the writing and the performances, particularly those of Cole and Black. (Paulson also is tremendous in those few episodes where she has more than short appearances.) Black plays Caleb to a tee, showing a youth wise beyond his years and tempered by the events of his life. He recognizes and reacts to the basic struggle between evil and good, although perhaps not quite aware of the fact that he is one locus of the struggle.

Cole’s performance as the sheriff (“That’s Buck… with a ‘B'”) is superb. Cole and the writers make the character multi-dimensional. With his style and delivery, Cole imbues Buck with sufficient wry humor to make him an at times likable evil guy. For example, in the pilot he walks down the halls of the dark jail whistling the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show as he prepares to do evil. He’s also full of pithy one- or two-liners summarizing his approach toward ethics (“Conscience is just the fear of getting caught”). Despite the sardonic touch, Cole leaves absolutely no doubt that Buck is evil personified. In fact, Cole played this part so well that he totally shatters any image he created as Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie released earlier in 1995. If you watch that movie after this series, you can’t help but wonder what evil Mike Brady is undoubtedly up to.

In the episodes that aired, Gail Emory and Dr. Matt seem a bit too one dimensional. That flaw is offset by some wonderful supporting characters on Buck’s side of the equation. Nick Searcy plays Buck’s chief deputy, a man trapped between the boss to whom he owes so much and his conscience. Brenda Bakke plays Selena, the slutty, conniving school teacher who is willing to do Buck’s bidding because of her love for him but strong and wise enough to see him for exactly what he is. Selena also excels in the art of the double entendre (for example, asking the deputy while he’s playing pool in the pilot, “Rack your balls?”).

Although Caleb is the fulcrum of the battle between good and evil, Cassidy and the writers took time to develop virtually all of the characters. They were not afraid to devote episodes looking at how Buck manipulates people and situations to achieve his goals. They also make it clear that Sheriff Buck’s powers invoke the supernatural and, in fact, raise the question of whether he is the devil incarnate. Merlyn, meanwhile, struggles with understanding and using what abilities she has in her ghostlike/angelic state to help Caleb against the Sheriff.

American Gothic also has one attribute most short-lived series lack. Cassidy learned early enough that the show would not be renewed that he spent a feverish weekend creating a finale for the series. In addition, this three-DVD set contains four episodes that never aired, bringing the viewer a total of 22 episodes. Like the aired episodes, these four greatly increase our understanding of various characters. For example, both Dr. Matt and Gail grudgingly cut deals with Sheriff Buck that lead them to “truth,” including a somewhat shocking solution to the death of Gail’s parents.

Yet the four unaired episodes reveal the shortcomings of the set’s packaging. The only commentary accompanies the pilot episode and gives no reason why these episodes, significant as they were, did not air instead of others. More crucially, the set tacks the four episodes on at the end of the DVD, meaning that if watched in the order on the DVD they come after the series finale. Unfortunately, nothing in or on the box set indicates that. If you go to the official web site for the DVD, you can find the production order of the episodes and watch them as Cassidy intended. It makes no sense, though, to force the viewer to go to a web site and not provide this information in or on the set itself.

Additionally, the episode summaries that appear in the packaging and on the DVDs themselves contain factual inaccuracies for a few episodes. The tendency to error is also reflected at the official DVD website, which lists Turco’s name instead of Paulson’s under a picture of Merlyn.

Yet if you’re buying DVD sets for the packaging as opposed to the content, you’re probably missing the point. These failings in no way undercut the series itself. Aside from the limited computer special effects of its time, American Gothic stands up a decade after it aired and will do so long into the future. It is proof that even genres often dependent on special effects can be carried by strong writing and acting. While Halloween may provide a convenient reason to buy this set, the content and quality of the series make it a worthwhile investment and worthy viewing year round.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
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