Even TV critics have their guilty pleasures, and I have a soft spot for summer murder mysteries, the kind of shows that allow one to turn off their brain, suspect everyone, and watch the chaos unfold. I’m probably the only person you know who watched every mirthless episode of “Harper’s Island” and I’m currently questioning why I watch MTV’s “Scream” on a weekly basis. In other words, I am the target audience for CBS’s “American Gothic" (premiering Wednesday, June 22 at 10/9c), a murder mystery about a powerful family with some deeply-buried secrets and a connection to a serial killer. With that in mind, my modest recommendation for “American Gothic” should also be considered a modest warning for most viewers. On the other hand, if this barely works for me, it probably won’t work for you.
“American Gothic” has nothing to do with the 1995 CBS series with which it shares a name, or the famous Grant Wood painting, or really anything that could be defined as gothic. It is American, I guess. It centers on the Hawthornes, a Boston family gathering together for the upcoming political campaign being run by the most “together” daughter Alison (Juliet Rylance of “The Knick"). Alison’s sister Tessa (Megan Ketch) is married to a cop named Brady (Elliot Knight). In the opening scene, the nicest Hawthorne and her cop hubby are driving through a tunnel when the ceiling collapses behind them, crushing a car. In the concrete, a belt is found that links back to a series of serial killings years earlier, and it turns out that the Hawthorne family helped build the tunnel.
At the same time, Tessa and her brother Cam (Justin Chatwin of “Shameless”), who’s been dealing with some addiction demons for the last few years and has a truly creepy son named Jack (Gabriel Bateman), happen upon some evidence in the shed that links the Hawthorne patriarch to the same murders. As if on cue, said papa has a heart attack, leaving everyone, including his wife Madeline (Virginia Madsen), wondering what to do next. Although Madeline may know more than she’s letting on, and it sure seems like black sheep Garrett (Antony Starr) knows a thing or two. Was Mr. Hawthorne a serial killer? Did Garrett come back to cover up his crimes or expose him? Was dad just protecting one of his children? Why is Madeline acting so suspicious? And what will the new cop do when he learns that his investigation is going to lead him to his in-laws?
Clearly, “American Gothic” has enough plot for a summer murder mystery, but it doesn’t quite have the style or cast to pull it off with the flair that this kind of guilty pleasure needs. The show needs to be like those books that people buy at the airport and read on the beach—easy to digest but also paced well enough to keep the sun from putting them to sleep. The two episodes sent to press of “American Gothic” feel clunky instead of confident. The show seems to open with a dark sense of humor, but that disappears for large stretches of time, and the cast is at the mercy of the plotting, unable to develop full characters. Rylance does the best with very little and Ketch certainly works as the most likable Hawthorne, at least to start, but Chatwin and Starr are boring plot devices. And I’m not sure what Madsen is doing here.
Will I watch the rest of “American Gothic”? Probably. Like I said, it’s kind of beyond my control in the same sense that I can’t start reading a murder mystery and not know who did it. Although maybe I’ll wait till it’s done and skip to the end.