The mid 1990s were a golden era of television. Babylon 5, Brisco County, Jnr, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the least successful of them all, American Gothic. I remember watching all these shows when they were on TV and being variously impressed with them; especially Babylon 5. All of them used episodic/arc structures to some extent, a revolutionary televisual concept.
I bought American Gothic on DVD a few years ago, after incidentally recommending it to Ivan. Recently I was thinking about The Dain Curse, Hammett’s second novel, a labyrinthine Gothic tale of cults and murders. I started to think that the central question through the centre of the novel was about a choice between believing in a curse and searching for the truth. And I started to see a connection to the central theme of American Gothic – the theme of choice.
The show revolves around the battle for the soul of a young boy between the Sheriff of a small town, and the ghost of his murdered sister. The trouble is, that’s not an interesting question in and of itself – whether one specific child becomes good, or evil. That’s a short story, not the deep and complex question to occupy a score of episodes.
I think the problem with asking “big questions” like this has really been hammered home in the recent discussions of Prometheus – they are just simply too large and too abstract to produce meaning in proportion to their apparent size. The most successful artistic constructs would seem to me to have a strong surface “busy work” to occupy and guide the action while asking these questions implicitly, and by framing those implicit inquiries in terms of their impact on the small details of life.
The other shows of this era all found some obvious and accessible surface text to use in their investigations. For example, the central and dominant theme in Brisco County, Jnr is how individual choices shape future, it’s about the power of free will and the wonder of exploration. The surface text, however, is a straightforward Western bounty-hunting, spiced up with a peristent “what if” use of anachronisms. Yet the show never loses sight of its central moral concern – what is good, how can you “fight” for good without betraying it? The least interesting and successful episode is the final confrontation with John Bligh, because it fails to convincingly sublimate the moral resolution into the story. (See my earlier discussion on Buffy about how to do this well).
At its best, American Gothic turns and directly confronts the decision to be good, or to be evil; where, like Supernatural it renders the subtext into text to force the characters to really evaluate what they’re doing. It produced one of my favourite of any TV episode, “Damned If You Don’t”, where the consequences of long-past events are foregrounded, and characters are forced to confront their past mistakes. It’s an amazingly tense mini-horror film which understands how to orchestrate the interplay between action and characterization perfectly.
Unfortunately it almost always falls into the trap of episodic television and fails to follow through on the consequences of those apparently pivotal decisions in later episodes: every character seems to have a decent handful of get-of-of-plot-free cards.
Putting aside those plot-structural questions for now, on the level of an entertainment construct, there is a lot to love. Gary Cole is wonderful as the diabolic Lucas Buck, who is himself a kind of mesmeric character. He is seductive but dangerous, perfectly charming while inevitably menacing. Literally every scene he’s in has a double-edged vitality. In particular, his scenes with Brenda Bakke as Selene Coombs always seem to draw my interest, and their relationship is fascinating.
I think that more than any other TV show from the 80s or 90s, American Gothic is ripe for a re-making in the new compressed-serial format of Showtime or HBO with the willingness to follow through on the implications of each plot development.