I Finally Watched American Gothic, from 1995

It was the summer of 1995, and for the whole season CBS was running ads for a new show debuting in the fall. It was touted as a show like nothing you had ever seen on television before, but then again, aren’t they always? Thankfully, it’s the 21st century now and I can simply show you one of these ads.

Scary, huh? Those words “someone’s at the door” haunted me that whole summer. What did it all mean? It took me almost 20 years (19 years and 8 months after the show began), but I finally sat down and watched this whole adventure from beginning to end. The show only lasted one season (22 episodes) and was cancelled. It also suffered from the same ailment that Firefly suffered; the network aired the show in the wrong order.

lucasbuckFirst, we have the star of the show, Lucas Buck, “with a ‘B,'” Sheriff of Trinity, South Carolina. I am convinced that the handling of his character is the reason this show ultimately fell apart and likely left a lot of people scratching their heads and changing the channel.

For starters, Lucas Buck (played by Gary Cole) is the antagonist of the show. He is, however, the star. From what we can tell, he is either the devil, a demon, or a human that is versed in the black arts (witch/warlock, that sort of thing). Buck makes deals with the townspeople that often end up screwing them and working in his own favor – or at the very least they are indebted to him and compelled to do things that they would normally abstain from (usually murder). Eventually, we find out that he raped a woman. Her child, Caleb Temple (now age 8, played by Lucas Black) is actually his son and some kind of protege to being the next demon conqueror of the land. Caleb, is presumably the main protagonist of the program, but we’ll get to that soon. Buck also kills Caleb’s sister, Merlyn (played by Sarah Paulson). She remains in the show, however, as a ghost, giving Caleb spiritual guidance for the entire series. Let’s quickly review what we know about Lucas Buck:

  • Kills
  • Rapes
  • Compels people to kill
  • Screws people on deals
  • Practices dark arts of some kind

That’s quite a CV for a villain, but here’s the problem with this: he’s still kind of the protagonist, also. Being that Caleb is his demon seed, he wants to protect his offspring and groom him to take his place one day. He also protects the town, even though he does some terrible things to the townspeople, if there is any exterior threat to the town, he takes care of it with haste. At some points in the show, people come to him demanding help, instead of asking. They blackmail him or bully him into helping them and he, of course, finds a way to screw them on whatever deal they make. By the time this happens, though, you will enjoy seeing this happen, because you want to see these people get what they deserve. Add to that, the character is written with a lot of wit and charm. Again, let’s review what we know about the main villain of this show:

  • Witty and charming
  • Protects the town
  • Protects a main protagonist
  • Gives people worse than him what they deserve

Confused? You should be, I was.

It’s difficult to say who the main protagonist is. For starters, we don’t follow most of them through the story as much as we do Lucas Buck. An argument could be made that one, or more, of four characters is/are the protagonist(s).

calebtempleCaleb Temple is putting up an admirable fight against being cordial with Lucas Buck, but Buck keeps attempting to get on his good side. Buck buys him things, takes him places, drives him around, lets him drive – the only caveat is that he will occasionally teach him to engage his darker feelings and impulses. Other than that, he loves this kid and will do just about anything to keep him safe. Caleb is visited by his dead sister, in ghost form, frequently, who tries to steer him in the right direction and keep him from becoming evil. Although the show starts off seemingly building around him being the main character, a lot of what is taking place is beyond his scope of understanding and he falls in line as just one of the characters.

merlyntempleMerlyn Temple (Merly) becomes more and more powerful as a ghost the longer the show goes on. She hates Lucas Buck and staves off succumbing to any of his charm at all. She sees him as a bad guy and that is that. After all, Buck did kill her. She is the one muttering those haunting words, “someone’s at the door.” She says this on the night that Lucas Buck comes to their house and forces himself onto her mother – when Caleb is conceived. (She also dies giving birth to Caleb.) She goes into some kind of emotional trauma and for the rest of her life and only says these words. Her father goes into fit of irrational rage (which we can attribute to Buck’s undevine influence, somehow) and after attacking her, Buck shows up and breaks her neck in what he calls a “mercy killing.” He has it on record that her father’s attack is what led to her her death, however.
Now a ghost, she is more fluent and understanding of the world around her. She makes mistakes, however, doing some borderline things of her own. She spreads a plague throughout the town that leads to their death, this also turns their reservoir into blood. Even Buck tells her she’s gone too far and needs to dial it down a notch. She does this to “punish sinners,” but like Santa Claus in Futurama, everyone is a sinner and we see her losing control, a bit. She also, somehow, trades places with an unborn baby and gains a physical body for an episode just to have some fun, almost costing the baby its life before it’s even born. Again, she could potentially be the main protagonist, but her lack of presence on screen and lack of involvement in most of the stories pushes her aside for consideration of that title.

gailemoryGail Emory (played by Paige Turco) is Caleb’s cousin. She fled the town a very long time ago, suspecting that Lucas Buck killed her parents. She returns to take care of her only relative left in Trinity. Eventually she finds out that Buck is, for once, innocent and takes a liking to him romantically. When she first arrives in town it seems like she may also be the main character – sort of the “fish out of water” character that guides us into the town of Trinity. She’s not. She’s absent from several important episodes. After she finds out that someone else killed her parents, she subsequently sleeps with Buck and their relationship seesaws after that.

doctormattcrowerThe last candidate for main protagonist is Doctor Matt Crower. “Dr. Matt” (played by Jake Weber) shows up in town shortly before things really start going haywire. He also has the potential to be the fish out of water, but again that proves to lead nowhere. Although most of the town does things Buck’s way (which is usually because he’s involved with things and he’s covering up his name and trail), Crower does things by the book and dislikes Buck. We find out that he has a dark past, however. He developed a drinking problem and killed his wife and child in a car accident. He is now in the town of Trinity to start over. He never quite steps up to the challenge of being the main character. He is written off the show about halfway through the season, which seems odd. His exit from the show is poorly written, as he attempts to kill Lucas Buck and while in custody, Buck tells the deputy (in so many words) to take him somewhere quiet and kill him. The deputy does this, but lets him go, however, Dr. Matt refuses to go because he is there to take a stand – and then he just goes to jail and is never on the show again. Maybe there was a contract dispute with the actor?

Through explaining these characters, you get the gist of the show. There are a few supporting characters worth mentioning, but their meta stories are all very similar.

benhealyBen Healy, for example, is Buck’s deputy. It seems like any episode he’s in is some kind of moral dilemma. He is typically tasked with or party to something he has a problem with, but because it’s for Lucas Buck, he goes along with it begrudgingly. That’s pretty much par for his character. He’s a likable guy, but at some point it gets tiring that his character seems so stop and start.

selenacoombsThe last character I want to add to the list is Ms. Selena Coombs. Oh, Ms. Coombs. I love you. If you watch the show, you will love her too, once she casts that bewitching stair at you. Selena Coombs is hot. You might say “you’re objectifying this woman.” You’re right, I am. That is, however, her role in the show. She seems like Lucas Buck’s right hand (in more ways than one). She’s a willing participant in his antics (in more ways- alright, I’ll stop). But seriously, the reason I am driving this point home is simple, a lot of her dialog is sexual innuendo. She is quite the femme fatale. She has an on and off romance with Lucas Buck. She seems to always go back to him and men that attempt to court Ms. Coombs usually end up with a sudden stroke of bad luck. It’s implied throughout the show that she’ll have sex with just about anything that moves. Buck actually (very lightly) implies that she was about to have sex with a child at some point in the series (it was network TV in the mid 90s, though, so it requires some reading between the lines). She is almost like a sexy woman version of Quagmire from Family Guy. It seems that everything turns her on and her native language is not English, but sexual innuendo. Even when she mentions spanking children – it’s perverted. She gets to deliver lines such as, “I like pounding,” and “I’m not ready to come yet,” as some examples. Her dialog is fabulous and so is she.

Ultimately, Buck gets Gail Emory pregnant and is gearing up for a second seed of evil. He dies in the second to last episode of the show and Caleb seems to get a sudden surge of evil in his spirit. When he finds out he has a half brother on the way, he wants to ensure he’s the soul heir to Lucas Buck’s …empire. He goes mad with evil and sets his sights on killing his cousin Gail and her unborn child. Buck, who turns out not to be dead, returns in order to save her and stop Caleb – again, confusing the narrative of who we should be rooting for. Based on the abrupt ending of the show, we have to presume that Caleb grows up to become the new Lucas Buck and that’s that.

dreyAlso worth noting: Sam Raimi produced this show. It took a few episodes, but suddenly Bruce Campbell shows up as an FBI agent. I got super excited when this happened, I thought he would make a super charismatic foe for Buck, but he’s a one-and-done, sadly. He gets captured by a two-bit criminal in the town and locked in some kind of box with flesh-eating beetles. It is never even made clear if he dies that way or is rescued.

I’d say it’s worth a watch if off-beat scifi/fantasy tickles your fancy. Make sure to consult IMDb when you do, however. The episodes aired in the wrong order and you’ll find yourself plunging into a deeper part of the story randomly and being very confused. This show had potential. I was surprised with some of the things that were on a network television show from 1995 – violence and sex-wise. They definitely needed to establish a stronger hero and villain dynamic. A little more revealing of what was taking place would have been helpful to move the story along. We never actually find out what Lucas Buck is – we find occult books in his house at some point and another character recognizes a spell he casts, but reach seems to extend longer than that of someone that learned witchcraft. All of the characters seem to waver from liking him, to tolerating him, to despising him, which is also confusing. It also suffers a bit from that typical serial drama storyline – where it was almost an anthology drama, except for some recurring themes. One episode holds very little effect on the next. I would like to see another attempt and this show, but done right.

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