American Gothic made a promise to its audience to be a summer murder mystery in the same vein as Harper’s Island — a little cheesy and over dramatic, but a chilling, emotional journey nonetheless. What it delivered was a bunch of actors hamming it up with a meandering plot, a boatload of coincidences, and a stark inability to engage on any level with its audience. It is an exercise is the most boring of mainstream narratives. I ended up watching this show alongside Braindead, CBS’s other summer offering that I thought was going to be the drab, scene-chewing nightmare American Gothic turned out to be. Go watch Braindead instead, and never look back.
American Gothic follows the fictional Hawthorne family, one of the most successful and powerful families in Boston. They do have a few quirks — the oldest son Garrett disappeared to live in the wilderness, while the next oldest son Cam is a drug addict with the most psychotic 10 year old child ever birthed by bad writers. Of the two daughters, Alison is a politician with her eyes set on being mayor and Tessa is sort of the sweet, squishy marshmallow character who we are all supposed to associate with. They are reunited when their father dies, helping their grieving mother Madeline, only to find evidence that their father was the Silver Bells Killer, a notorious serial strangler who always left a bell at the crime scene. However, doubt is cast when more Silver Bells murders crop up, and thus the family members are in grave danger.
If there’s one term to describe the writing, acting, directing and editing, it’s soap opera. The dialogue is over dramatic and explains too much, and yet doesn’t sound remotely human. The bad characters, like Madeleine, Cam’s drug addict wife and psychopath child, are done in such a way that makes them wholly unlikeable and uninspired — you can’t even love to hate them because there’s nothing to hate. Madeleine’s murders (and she commits quite a few throughout the story, even though she is not Silver Bells) are never dealt with ever. Also, they give her a “mysterious” backstory wherein she was desperately poor and of the lower class for essentially no purpose other, except maybe that poor people are murders. That and police officers are incompetent as hell.
I could go through the entire cast and provide descriptions as to their portrayals, but they would all sound extremely similar: it’s over the top and wooden, falling just short of reaching human emotions. Anthony Starr is really the only actor who manages to give a strong performance of a damaged and saddened Garrett. Sophie has the weirdest character whiplashes, going from subdued to manic without much transition, but I’d blame that more on the writing than Stephanie Leonidas. And hey, if you want to see the depths Justin Chatwin, who played Goku in the terrible Dragonball: Evolution, now is your chance.
The directing is also weird, as for some reason someone decided it would be dramatic to do constant close up on people’s faces, as though the audience might be confused who they were without it. Everything about the framing that screams soap opera, from the grand sweeps, to the close ins with people on chairs, but nothing about it screams gothic sensibilities. It doesn’t even whisper it, it just sort of tries to be vaguely creepy and menacing, and fails on both fronts. While there are a few good moments of suspense, it never feels like any of the main characters are ever in any real danger.
As for the ending, I won’t lie, I physically face-palmed. What happened to the original Silver Bells Killer, who the new killer is, how it was all done was just so unimaginative and unconvincing that one has to wonder what is even the point. The problem is that they wrote themselves into the corner — there was no where else for them to go with the story, no one planned it out, or if they did, no one pointed out how idiotic it was. Those who are good at cracking mysteries will figure it out pretty fast, but even those who don’t won’t be as blown away as the show wants them to be.
American Gothic could be forgiven if it was so unsavably bad that it sort of wrapped back around to good, but it’s too mediocre. In spite of some strong plot points and a generally clean design, the whole story is like a slowing rotting fish we’re all waiting to watch collapse. There was a sequel-bait ending but honestly, no studio exec in their right mind would green light any kind of continuation to this. I’m hoping this doesn’t kill any hopes for another CBS murder mystery because it’s not the genre that failed to garner praise, it was this poorly planned and written story about a rich family who are actually in no danger from a serial killer.
American Gothic proves that you can make a murder mystery totally uninteresting. The characters are the weirdest of extremes, the writing and directing are straight out of the soap opera handbook.
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