[WARNING – This review of American Gothic‘s season premiere contains minor spoilers.]
Just about everyone loves a good mystery, and TV is never better than when a truly gripping “whodunnit” has viewers tuning in week after week, anxious for its final, shocking reveal. CBS’s American Gothic aims to be this summer’s most talked about suspense thriller, the one coworkers will hurry to discuss with each other and will have fans live-tweeting each episode. Unfortunately, at least in the first of the series’ 13 hours, there’s little about American Gothic which could be called remarkable, suspenseful, or even all that captivating.
The premise is neither original or noteworthy: a rich, Boston family is stunned when there’s reason to suspect their father, only recently deceased, may have been a famous and still at large serial killer. The paranoia only grows when family members start thinking that another member of their clan may have worked as his accomplice, leading everyone to be a suspect.
Were American Gothic’s only setback its uninspired premise, the series could still make a case for tuning in each week – by either featuring unique, rich characters or a setting that is truly bizarre. Instead, American Gothic is populated by caricatures: the over-achieving daughter (now running for mayor), the former junkie-turned famous cartoonist son, a matriarch clearly hiding about a good dozen juicy, family secrets, and her grandson, the creepy child of the cartoonist junkie, who is a textbook sociopath, drawing illustrations of cadavers and carrying out sick experiments on a neighbor’s cat. For the most part, the premiere takes place within the Hawthorne’s elegantly furnished family home; it’s a beautiful setting and one that is often shot to enhance its luxuriousness, but it’s otherwise indistinguishable from practically every other affluent family home on CBS or any other network.
The cast of American Gothic prove themselves capable, doing what little they can with such paper-thin characters. The bulk of the premiere centers on Justin Chatwin’s Cam Hawthorne, former junkie looking for his old stash in his parent’s shed, and Megan Ketch’s Tessa Ross, the youngest of the adult Hawthorne children – who also happens to be married to the police detective (Elliot Knight) investigating the recently reopened Silver Bell Killer case. (Yes, that’s the name of the serial killer, given because of their calling card, a tiny silver bell, left at every murder scene; an almost absurdly quaint little token.) And after coming across a box full of tiny silver bells in the shed, the siblings begin playing detectives themselves, trying to unravel what further meaning there could be behind the box of bells.
Overall, the writing is competent, a credit to Corinne Brinkerhoff (The Good Wife), but the premiere’s plot simply moves along from one soap opera-like twist to the next. First the Hawthorne family patriarch suffers a heart attack, which soon results in a coma and then death; the estranged older son returns home unexpectedly; the cartoonist dips back into his heroin habit; the mayoral candidate appears to be having an affair with her publicist, etc. There’s also a disconnect in tone, with some scenes landing on the campier side with humor that would feel more at home in a Ryan Murphy series.
With 12 more episodes to go, American Gothic could evolve into something more than a mediocre murder mystery filled with tired tropes and lazy characters, but it’s all the more likely to continue along this predictable path. For fans of murder mysteries, you’d be better served by a series like ITV’s Broadchurch or AMC’s (later Netflix’s) The Killing. And those looking for anything nearly as strange and weird as CBS’ 1990s American Gothic series, look elsewhere as the similarities between the series lie in name only. But if a quasi-suspenseful thriller filled with campy, soap opera theatrics is your cup of tea, then American Gothic may be entertaining enough (if not thoroughly engaging).
American Gothic airs Wednesday nights @10pm on CBS.