‘Someone’s at the door…’
Back in September 1995 a new series aired that was created by former Hardy Boy himself, Shaun Cassidy and executive produced by Sam Raimi. Now with those names behind a series you’d think it would be a sure fire hit. Well, it was but also wasn’t. Despite being nominated for several well deserved awards in the acting, genre and technical fields it somehow fell to the wayside with its final four episodes never being broadcast in the States but appearing on the DVD boxset. But why?
Some said it was too ambitious for its own good, while some cited the fact that the show played its hand too soon in showing the Sheriff as evil from day one rather than making it all a bit more of a mystery. The show explored what it meant by evil; was evil here because of human failings and therefore existing through our weaknesses or was it as self sustaining entity that played with people’s lives and used and abused to its heart’s content?
Were humans merely pawns in a greater level of existence or were we the only thing stopping hell from descending on Earth? Was it possible that, in all the failings of mankind, a single act of good could change the very nature of evil itself as personified by young Caleb Temple (Lucas Black, X Files the Movie, Tokyo Drift)?
In the town of Trinity, Sheriff Lucas Buck (played by Gary Cole, most recently seen in True Blood) reigns supreme, applying the law as he sees fit through a variety of supernatural powers that may or may not reveal him to be the Devil himself.
Now, many fans have chosen this interpretation, which to be honest I agree with, which makes young Caleb the Antichrist. Buck raped Caleb’s mother fathering the boy, a fact Caleb remains unaware of. However the act was witnessed by his sister Merlyn which left her severely traumatized (Someone’s at the door) and on his birth, Caleb’s mother committed suicide.
Now Buck wants his son, who seems to share some of his abilities, and in the first episode not only murders Merlyn but manipulates Caleb’s adoptive father into killing himself. However, greater forces come into play and Merlyn returns in ghost form to protect her brother alongside Doctor Crower played by Jake Weber (Medium and Dawn of the Dead), a newly arrived doctor with a past, Gail Emory, Caleb’s cousin (Paige Turco, April O’Neill from Teenage Mutant Ninja (Hero) Turtles movie fame).
Together, they form their own Trinity to keep Caleb from falling under Buck’s influence and allowing him to mold the boy in his own image ,effectively bringing about the Antichrist. And the battle for Caleb’s soul forms the heart of the series. Can these fault ridden humans be all the world needs to stop the Devil from turning Caleb to the dark side or will their failings be the everything to show Caleb a better way and turn against his father?
This is a great theme to base a series on – after all it worked for Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker – and should have been a runaway success. The town of Trinity is now the battleground that could determine the fate of the world. Buck has a hold on every one of the town’s inhabitants using their secrets against them to further his own means. And some critics have said that this was one of the faults of the series.
Cole, they said, didn’t have the power to bring across the charming evil of the character and was laden instead with cliched dialogue and acts of evil that were pretty standard. Another criticism was that the creators played the evil Sheriff card too soon and should have made the reveal of Buck’s evil side more of a shocker rather than be so obvious from the first episode. However, despite the ambitious storyline, delivery was universally panned as flat. And the writing out of Dr Crower became a shock tactic that seemed to turn viewers off and annoy fans.
However this would only make sense if American Gothic were designed as a single season story arc, but it wasn’t and without a final episode or resolution to the story, we can’t really judge exactly where this fitted into the overall plan.
Indeed Requiem became the final episode broadcast where Buck is buried alive and dying, while Caleb is emerging as the new evil, despite the efforts of those around him. Many cited that if this had been the true climax of the story they couldn’t have asked for better as Buck suffers losses the like of which he inflicted on many throughout the series, and all the main characters face down as alliances shift.
However, four episodes still remained, unbroadcast bar a few select TV stations globally and cut from the initial run of episodes which included Strangle, where Buck summons the ghost of the Boston Strangler to kill Merlyn (again) which for many completely destroyed any mystery about the Sheriff as it showed him to be evil incarnate with demonic powers rather than the ‘did he or didn’t he’ aspect.
Another lost episode is Potato Head where Caleb discovers a deformed child that can sing like an angel. Could this have been heaven intervening to help the main Trinity protect the young boy and show him another way? That decision was left to the viewer as they were released on DVD, but whatever else you say about American Gothic, it certainly still fires debate with its themes and characters.
Many say it was a show way before its time and set the way for the likes of Buffy and Angel by being a heavy character driven show with great story arcs. Even when the episode was weak you couldn’t help but be gripped by the interplay between characters eg Buck and Selene had a magnetic relationship, twisted though it was. Weber portrays that fantastic everyman but with a world weariness as if he has always fought the Devil.
But their biggest triumph was casting young Lucas Black as Caleb. Those burning features of his make him seem like there’s an entire world locked in that head of his and when he turns you believe it. So much so that if he is the Antichrist then daddy dearest was right to try and bring him back into the fold. So whatever your opinion, it still has people talking about it.
As a closing note, if you own the DVD boxset, beware because the episodes aren’t on the discs in the correct order. To watch the series chronologically, this is the order:
Disc 1 Side A Epidode 1 – “Pilot”
Disc 1 Side A Episode 2 – “A Tree Grows in Trinity”
Disc 1 Side A Episode 3 – “Eye of the Beholder”
Disc 1 Side B Episode 1 – “Damned if You Don’t”
Disc 3 Side A Episode 4 – “Potato Boy”
Disc 1 Side B Episode 2 – “Dead to the World”
Disc 1 Side B Episode 3 – “Meet the Beetles”
Disc 1 Side B Episode 4 – “Strong Arm of the Law”
Disc 2 Side B Episode 3 – “To Hell and Back”
Disc 2 Side B Episode 2 – “The Beast Within”
Disc 2 Side A Episode 1 – “Rebirth”
Disc 3 Side B Episode 1 – “Ring of Fire”
Disc 2 Side A Episode 2 – “Resurrector”
Disc 2 Side A Episode 3 – “Inhumanitas”
Disc 2 Side A Episode 4 – “The Plague Sower”
Disc 2 Side B Episode 1 – “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday”
Disc 2 Side B Episode 4 – “Learning to Crawl”
Disc 3 Side B Episode 2 – “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”
Disc 3 Side B Episode 3 – “Strangler”
Disc 3 Side A Episode 1 – “Triangle”
Disc 3 Side A Episode 2 – “The Buck Stops Here”
Disc 3 Side A Episode 3 – “Requiem”