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I love TV shows (and movies) that introduce you to despicable, downright evil characters who commit unforgivable acts right from the outset, and whom you are not supposed to like one bit, and then take the duration of the series to attempt to change your mind. The excellent police drama The Shield had a shocking pilot episode that left viewers wondering where it could possibly go from there but then, several seasons later, most fans are probably happily rooting for the same person originally painted as a bad guy. The villain becomes the anti-hero and, eventually, just the hero. To a certain extent, Deadwood’s lead character also exhibits the same well-developed character traits but over a decade ago, a small show called American Gothic, introduced us to the trend.

American Gothic

Movie


Caleb Temple is a young boy in the small South Carolina town of Trinity who has just witnessed his abusive father violently attacking his disturbed elder sister, Merlyn. Taken into care, it is not long before Merlyn starts appearing to him in a vision and warning him against impending danger. The main threat seems to come in the form of the Sheriff of the town, a very powerful man called Lucas Buck. Right from the outset, he is painted as a scheming, manipulative, corrupt and positively evil man—his first on-screen act being to break the neck of an unarmed woman—but is there more to him than meets the eye?

Sheriff Buck is intent on taking charge of Caleb, taking him under his wing, although nobody appears to understand why (even if it is suggested that he might be the boy’s true father). But he finds strong resistance, not just from the concerned new doctor, Matt, who initially treats the young boy, but also from Caleb’s estranged cousin, Gail, who turns up in town after hearing about the whole incident on the news. Gail is determined to get to the truth behind not only Caleb’s family history but also the deaths of her own parents, all of which appears to lead back to the shady, ominous Sheriff, who appears to own everybody in town after having done Godfather-style favours for all of them. But is the Sheriff the true villain or is he merely a necessary evil?

American Gothic
If you took Twin Peaks away from director David Lynch and had Sam Raimi do it instead, American Gothic is probably the result you would get. Largely comprehensible (unlike Twin Peaks), it still carries a dark, brooding edge that keeps you gripped from one episode to the next. Evil runs throughout. I have no idea why they did not pick this up for further scenes, nor why the lead star—Gary Cole—did not get better roles off the back of this (although his recent new series, Wanted, looks promising). He has the best part, with all the good lines and all the cool scenes, playing the devious anti-hero Sheriff with a menacing smile and possibly supernatural powers.

The kid, Caleb Temple, is played by Lucas Black, who does a reasonable job despite the sometimes irritating southern drawl he milks for all its worth. He has gone on to take bit parts in movies like Friday Night Lights, but is unlikely to ever escape the fact that he permanently looks like the boy Caleb. Paige Turco from the CIA show The Agency plays Caleb’s cousin Gail, his sister Merlyn is played by Sarah Paulson, and Dawn of the Dead’s Jake Weber plays doctor Matt. We also get a few guest stars, including Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell, Batman’s Pat Hingle and 24’s Arnold Vosloo.

American Gothic is well worth your time, with its own inimitable omnipresence of evil, alongside nods to plenty of movies like Cape Fear and Mad Max, and stories involving child abuse, serial killers, mobsters, mental illness and demonic possession. With Sheriff Buck easily being one of the best TV characters of all time, the series has gone down a cult classic and its fans have been eagerly waiting its release on DVD.

American Gothic
The show was originally aired in a terribly random order, ruining the sense of many of the continuing arcs, but this problem was eventually rectified. Unfortunately, this highly-anticipated DVD release presents the episodes in that same, stupid order, which places the season finale a whole four episodes earlier than it should be. Below I have listed the DVD order and the original linear story order which should help you make more sense of the series. At the very least I advise you watch the two-part season finale (The Buck Stops Here and Requiem) after all of the others.

Episode List (in DVD order with original order in brackets)
1. Pilot (0)
2. A Tree Grows in Trinity (1)
3. Eye of the Beholder (2)
4. Damned if you don’t (4)
5. Dead to the World (5)
6. Meet the Beetles (3)
7. Strong Arm of the Law (8)
8. Rebirth (10)
9. Resurrector (14)
10. Inhumanitas (15)
11. The Plague Sower (6)
12. Doctor Death takes a Holiday (17)
13. The Beast Within (11)
14. To Hell and Back (7)
15. Learning to Crawl (18)
16. Triangle (19)
17. The Buck Stops Here (23)
18. Requiem (24)
19. Potato Boy (9)
20. Ring of Fire (13)
21. Echo of Your Last Goodbye (20)
22. Strangler (22)
 
American Gothic

Video


American Gothic is presented in its original TV format with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, non-anamorphically enhanced fullscreen transfer. The detail is generally quite good, with little edge enhancement, some softness and negligible grain. Some episodes and some sequences are worse than others, with the odd shot looking totally terrible, grain and softness overcoming the picture. Generally, however, the series looks pretty good considering it is ten years old. The colour scheme is quite broad and luscious, with common browns and vivid greens, but the blacks are a little dubious, not quite as solid as would be appropriate in a show this dark. The picture itself is prone to a few defects, unfortunately, with the odd episode showing glitches that you would simply prefer not to be there.

Audio


The main audio track is a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 effort that presents this series quite reasonably. The dialogue come fairly clearly and crisply from the frontal array, but is a little cramped at times since everything else on the soundtrack is crammed into the same front channels. The score is quite dominating, but would have sounded better if given more room to breathe, and there are a few nice effects (particularly from the flashback sequences) to fill out the track. There is no bass and the mix could have done with some six-speaker re-mixing but this is still a perfectly acceptable presentation for a not-so-recent production such as American Gothic.

American Gothic

Extras


There is an audio commentary for the pilot episode from the creator Sean Cassidy and the producer David Ike. They haven’t seen the series since it aired, so quite a lot of time is spent rediscovering their brainchild. They randomly praise the cast, often drifting randomly off subject, but occasionally happening upon something actually interesting. They explain how ‘someone’s at the door’ was the original selling line for the series, how some scenes were shot, who was involved behind the scenes (a particularly boring aspect) and offer an insight into the story and the characters (a particularly interesting aspect). There is a lot of talk over the horror theme and demonic side of the show, how extreme it was for CBS (making big mention of the opening breaking of a child’s neck) and how they teased fans on the internet by alluding to Sheriff Buck being the devil (which they clarify that he is not—it is much more ambiguous than that). It is of definite interest to those who love the series.

We also get lots of deleted footage strewn across the discs, gracing many of the episodes. Each of them lasts a few minutes and they are generally extremely poor quality b-roll footage. They are only on selected episodes and few of them are really worth your time (none of them should have made the final cut but some of them do offer more interesting lessons from Sheriff Buck) but it is a great find and fans will be chuffed that they bothered including them for the release.

American Gothic

Overall


American Gothic was one of the best TV shows ever to air and finally, after over ten years, a new audience is finally going to get the chance to see it and all the old fans will also be able to revisit it. With a video presentation that probably makes it look as good as it ever has and a decent audio representation, fans will also be particularly pleased by the interesting extras on the discs (most notably the commentary). Those who love the series will already have this release on order, but it comes highly recommended to newcomers as well.


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