American Gothic: The Complete Series Review
is a cult television show that first aired on CBS ten years ago. This anniversary and the proximity of Hallowe'en have finally led to what fans have been clamouring for for many years now – the release of the series on DVD. In its original television broadcast it was a bit of a slow burner, with CBS messing about with the order in which they aired the episodes, apparently believing that they knew better than the writers which would elicit the best ratings. As one might imagine, this primarily succeeded in annoying the TV audience, but fortunately subsequent showings of the series in the correct order on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US helped establish a strong fan following.
Amongst series cancelled before ever making it to a second season, this show is slightly unusual not only in that it lasted through an almost full first season of 22 episodes (only 4 episodes went unaired, and these thankfully weren't the final ones) but also because it deals strongly with the concept of Evil (with a capital 'E') as a controlling force in the real world... and does so fairly unabashedly. While other shows that had demonic slants - such as Miracles and Brimstone - were pulled off the air much more quickly in the States, somehow American Gothic managed to hold on a bit longer at least, giving the writers enough time to wrap things up fairly satisfactorily before the axe came down.
The series is set in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, where most of the residents are indebted in one way or another to the local Sheriff, Lucas Buck (Gary Cole - Midnight Caller, Crusade). Trinity is one of those places that outwardly seems a 'nice place to live', but is propped up by a web of intrigues and clandestine arrangements between its residents and the spider pulling all the strings... Sheriff Buck, the one seemingly privy to everyone's secrets. There's no doubt about it, Lucas is evil through and through and those who cross him quickly find out that he has many methods of meting out retribution.
As the series begins, we're introduced to the other principal characters. The lynchpin is Caleb Temple (Lucas Black - Sling Blade, Cold Mountain, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), a young boy celebrating his 10th birthday when his sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson - Serenity, Leap of Faith) is murdered and their father Gage is arrested for the offence. Interestingly, Sheriff Buck himself, Dr Matt Crower (Jake Weber - Medium, U-571) of the local hospital and Caleb's cousin Gail Amory (Paige Turco - The Agency) - who had been living back in Charleston but learns of the incident on the breaking news - all want to take care of Caleb after this family tragedy.
As it turns out, Sheriff Buck is Caleb's biological father (having raped his mother and apparently caused her death as well), and because of this he takes a great interest in Caleb's welfare, hoping to foster an heir to his small, sinister empire. Meanwhile, Dr Crower and Gail, along with the ghost/angel of Caleb's sister Merlyn, are able to provide the boy with more of an all-round 'good' family to counterbalance the Sheriff's obvious dark side. As the show plays out, the various influences on Caleb become more and more important. However, in between this series' impressive story arc, there was also plenty of room to build up characters and to bring in individual horror stories... and I believe it was this mix that allowed the show to become such a firm cult favourite. Of course, it also has Bruce Campbell in a guest appearance (in 'Meet the Beetles', for the curious) and that in itself just about cements cult status for any production!
was created by Shaun Cassidy of The Hardy Boys. He's also the creator of Invasion, which is showing currently. He was blessed (if you can use that word when talking about this particular show) in having a spectacular cast and crew for American Gothic, and the whole team contributed greatly to making it so loved. Sam Raimi's influence as one of the show's producers can be felt throughout – not least of which in the woods scene of 'Learning to Crawl', which in fact uses the same woods as Evil Dead. Gary Cole is simply superb as the extremely menacing (and yet charmingly good-humoured) evil Sheriff and he is matched ably by Sarah Paulson's Merlyn Temple, not to mention Lucas Black delivering a stunning, make-or-break performance as the child Caleb. But then it's hard to fault the core cast at all. Also deserving of special mention are Brenda Bakke as Selena Coombs, the seductive English teacher and part-time girlfriend to Lucas Buck, and Nick Searcy who plays Ben, the long-suffering deputy who tries occasionally to stand up to his boss. Notable guest stars in the series include Arnold Vosloo ('A Tree Grows in Trinity'), Bruce Campell ('Meet the Beetles'), Danny Masterson ('Rebirth'), and Ted Raimi ('Learning to Crawl').
American Gothic remains a great, atmospheric television show. With strong cast, writing, production and storylines, it's a shame it wasn't given the golden treatment by its network – but hey, that's hardly a rare story, is it? It's great to be able to watch the show again and to remind myself and show others what the appeal was all along.
Instead of the usual episode summary, I'll present an insight into episode order and airing schedules. As mentioned above, CBS chose to air American Gothic out of its proper sequence. They also decided not to broadcast 4 episodes... which are included, much to the relief of fans of the show, on this DVD boxset. Unfortunately, Universal didn't bother to correct the out-of-order issues when they went to release the series on everyone's fave shiny discs, so the episodes on these 3 DVDs are presented once again in the order they originally aired - not in the order they were meant to be seen.
So, if you want to watch these in any kind of sensible sequence, you need to be prepared to undergo a great deal of disc-swapping... but it's certainly worth it. The continuity errors and confusion that ensue from watching the show in its broadcast order melt away, and you'll also get to view the unaired episodes where they were meant to fit into the overall storyline, not merely dumped at the end of the series. (Yes, that's where Universal chose to place the unaired material – directly after the series' final episode. Oh dear.) It's a bit of a travesty and really really not how I would have liked to sit down and watch this favourite series of mine. I mean, I complain about having to get up to turn a disc over, never mind having to locate the right disc, side and episode before I fear ruining the experience for my co-watcher who'd never seen it before. My thanks go out to TV Shows on DVD for the suggestion of breaks between disc swaps and the disc references and to the Sci Fi Channel for the correct viewing order. I've also put the unaired episodes in boldface, so they're more obvious for anyone wanting to know immediately which ones they missed.
Pilot (Disc 1, Side A, Episode 1)
A Tree Grows in Trinity (Disc 1, Side A, Episode 2)
Eye of the Beholder (Disc 1, Side A, Episode 3)
Damned If You Don't (Disc 1, Side B, Episode 1)
Dead to the World (Disc 1, Side B, Episode 2)
Potato Boy (Disc 3, Side A, Episode 4)
Meet the Beetles (Disc 1, Side B, Episode 3)
Strong Arm of the Law (Disc 1, Side B, Episode 4)
To Hell and Back (Disc 2, Side B, Episode 3)
The Beast Within (Disc 2, Side B, Episode 2)
Rebirth (Disc 2, Side A, Episode 1)
Ring of Fire (Disc 3, Side B, Episode 1)
Resurrector (Disc 2, Side A, Episode 2)
Inhumanitas (Disc 2, Side A, Episode 3)
The Plague Sower (Disc 2, Side A, Episode 4)
Doctor Death Takes a Holiday (Disc 2, Side B, Episode 1)
Learning to Crawl (Disc 2, Side B, Episode 4)
Echo of Your Last Goodbye (Disc 3, Side B, Episode 2)
Triangle (Disc 3, Side A, Episode 1)
Strangler (Disc 3, Side B, Episode 3)
The Buck Stops Here (Disc 3, Side A, Episode 2)
Requiem (Disc 3, Side A, Episode 3)
In terms of episode quality, my honest opinion is that in this series the quality was pretty consistent throughout. The first episode I ever watched on TV was 'Damned If You Don't' and I remember not being overly impressed by the simpering female guest star of the episode (Brigid Walsh, also seen in Kindred: the Embraced in my TV-on-DVD collection). But aside from that I genuinely have no quibbles. Each individual plot is creepy in its own right, and as the series progresses the core characters grow and develop, permitting the arc to come to a satisfactory end by the time the show finishes. I have to say I can't remember if the unaired episodes ever made it over to the UK, as they're only referred to as 'unaired in the US'... but I did really enjoy 'Ring of Fire', especially as Gail finally gets to find out what happened to her parents in it. Apparently the Sci-Fi Channel aired these four episodes when they picked up the show from CBS, so even the 'unaired in the US' tag is not strictly correct!
Packaging & Menus
The American Gothic boxset is presented on 3 DVD-18s with content on both sides of each disc (as you've likely ascertained by my comments on the episodes and what order to watch them in). There's therefore no artwork on the actual discs, although the sleeve art on each of the slimline Amaray cases that holds them is decent enough – there's a picture of Lucas on one, with Caleb and Merlyn pictured on the other two. The discs are kept together by a cardboard slipcase with fairly standard but decent artwork of the three characters together under the title.
Menus are static and quite basic affairs but they get the job done just fine. There are brief episode summaries which interpose themselves between the episode menus and the actual content - written in all caps, which makes them a bit harder to make out - but that's not really a massive criticism. There's also 'play all' options on each disc – but select them at your own risk, and only after close study of the order in which the series should be watched. You can get away with it in certain places, but be careful.
The picture is presented in its original 4:3 format and starts out fairly strong. There's a definite grain in some of the darker scenes, but overall it's more or less what I expected from a 10 year-old television series that's been put out on DVD-18s by Universal. The biggest problem with the picture isn't actually the video quality itself but the sheer number of disc skips/glitches that are peppered throughout the massive running time (apparently a well-known problem with DVD-18 media). They're short and I didn't have too many problems watching the show despite them, but honestly – the DVD was just released this week and there are skipping issues to contend with. I've never really seen anything quite like it, and of course it's disappointing.
Unlike the issues of episode order and picture, I really have no complaints about the audio track. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, dialogue was clear and comprehensible throughout and Joseph LoDuca's music works very well to create the creepy horror atmosphere of the show, as well as the lighter moments.
The primary extra is an audio commentary by show creator Shaun Cassidy and producer David Eick on the pilot episode. The commentary was recorded in 2005 especially for this DVD release, and is really a highlight of the boxset. Although they admit to not having watched the show since its initial 1995 airing, they nonetheless manage an entertaining and informative commentary that doesn't disintegrate into silence or boredom. Both men speak intelligently about the violence in the show and Shaun Cassidy discusses whether Lucas Buck is the devil or not, albeit briefly. Of course, there's also the standard praise for the cast – and hey, with very good cause in this case. It's a good listen; they obviously feel great warmth towards their subject and pepper the chat with trivia about what the actors and production crew are up to now, who's won which Oscars, how various scenes were shot, etc. etc. There's also a lot of '...this is my favourite bit…', but as the pair are so entertaining and they hadn't watched the show for 10 years (or so they say) I'm prepared to forgive them for it. It's unquestionably one of the more fun, and yet informative, episode commentaries I've heard in a long time.
The only other special features are a handful of deleted and extended scenes (varying from 1 to 6.5 minutes in length) which can be found on each disc. With obvious differences in quality to the final product (no postproduction here, my friend), many of these were interesting to watch, though hardly vital. I was impressed that these scenes all made it onto the DVD release, given the other factors already mentioned. I wouldn't have been shocked if this had been a truly bare-bones release, so I was pleasantly surprised by any inclusion of extras. Obviously more features would have been fantastic, but perhaps unfeasible also, given that this set was released to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the show's airing.
What can I say? As much as I hate the order problems with the episodes and as disconcerting and disappointing as the skips in video playback were, it's American Gothic and it's on DVD at last! I've wanted this for so long that it's hard to take all the negatives and have them outweigh the fact that Universal have finally released this cult classic. There are no signs yet of an alternate region release, so currently if you want the show on DVD, this really is the only option. Just be advised to watch it with care and attention to get the maximum enjoyment out of the boxset.
That, or treat it as a copy to watch and wear out until something better comes along.