The Hawthorne family’s closets are chock-full of skeletons in the new CBS serialized mystery “American Gothic” (no relation to the 1995 CBS series of the same name). So far, the TV series has that guilty-pleasure quality of a soap opera. It might not be high art, but at least for now, there is a near-campy vibe that’s hard to resist and more ludicrous twists than a pretzel factory. There are the obligatory tempestuous sibling relationships; a serial killer coming out of hiding; a morbid little boy; euthanasia; bathroom canoodling during a funeral. It’s just one sordid incestuous relationship away from being the most dramatically overstuffed melodrama on television.
In the first of 13 episodes, “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” the introductions of the privileged Boston family are made. Just as Tessa (Megan Ketch) and detective husband Brady (Elliot Knight) are headed to her family home, the elusive Silver Bell Killer makes his first move with a tunnel collapse after 14 years of laying low. Tessa’s parents, Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan) and Madeline Hawthorne (Virginia Madsen), also welcome back their son, barely recovered drug addict Cam (Justin Chatwin), and his son Jack (Gabriel Bateman) as their daughter, Alison (Juliet Rylance), is running for office as a mayoral candidate. At Alison’s press conference where her entire family stands proud, patriarch Mitchell drops to the ground from a heart attack. Meanwhile, estranged sibling Garrett (Anthony Starr) returns home to visit his father in the hospital, and then Tessa and Cam happen upon a box full of silver handbells. What is the resurfaced Silver Bell Killer’s calling card doing in the family shed? Why is Garrett back? Why did little Jack slice off the annoying neighbor lady’s pet cat Caramel? Oh, and why does matriarch Madeline cut off her husband’s oxygen? Time will tell.
In Episode 2, “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” patriarch Mitchell is dead and his children want to keep his legacy intact, particularly politician daughter Alison. Tessa is a nervous wreck about her silver-bell findings with Cam, but Alison is convinced that it is baseless evidence. Could their now-late father have been the Silver Bell Killer? Alison is suspicious of the long-lost Garrett, whom she does not want saying anything inappropriate at their father’s funeral. Meanwhile, Madeline must cover up her tracks and keeps up appearances, changing the operation of her husband’s wake after the hospital realizes there were irregularities in Mitchell’s vitals. (Apparently, Mitchell had dementia and experienced sundowning, or so his wife tells their children.) Meanwhile, Tessa’s husband Brady is investigating the Silver Bell Killer’s latest motivated murder with the tunnel collapse and has the lead investigator, Detective Cutter (Deirdre Lovejoy), breathing down his neck about getting an immediate DNA sample from his dead father-in-law’s body. There’s also Cam and his also-barely-recovered drug addict ex, Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas), who may or may not want to be a family again with Cam and their son.
An Aaron Spelling soap by way of a twisted V.C. Andrews novel, “American Gothic” is just sinfully tasty enough that it might be worth one’s primetime viewing, even if it can’t be held up to close scrutiny. The suspect and red herring list is a long one—everyone is a liar or harbors some sort of secret in one way or another—and there are so many moving parts on the chess board, but that’s part of the pulpy appeal, right? The performances are appropriately melodramatic, veering somewhere between deliciously terrible and self-consciously earnest. And, this might be charitable, but there are traces of Brian De Palma in terms of the overwrought performance style, plotting and nifty camerawork, particularly the deep focus technique. As long as it keeps up that tawdry, kitchen-sink approach, one won’t mind tuning in to “American Gothic” each week to see what else the show-runners can cook up.