The Big Picture
- American Gothic, a forgotten 1990s TV show produced by Sam Raimi, perfectly captured everyday evil with a touch of the supernatural.
- The show was canceled after just one season due to low ratings and episodes being aired out of order, frustrating viewers.
- American Gothic could have rivaled shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks if it had been released today, with a talented cast and a portrayal of characters who straddle the line between good and evil.
Some of the best horror TV shows in history have a shared quality: they nail their depiction of the evil of humanity. American Horror Story comes to mind when thinking about shows that include supernatural elements but focus on the depravity of humanity and how terrible we can be to each other. If you frequently watch or even dabble in horror, you know that scenes of blood, gore, and mutilation are nothing compared to how downright despicable so-called normal, everyday people can be. The best horror series makes us realize that the line between good and evil is not always clear, and sometimes, the villain can be your next-door neighbor.
There is a forgotten show from the 1990s that perfectly encapsulates everyday evil with a side of the supernatural. Feeling intrigued? You should also know that Sam Raimi produced it. After establishing himself as a horror master with the 1981 classic, The Evil Dead, and before he gave us modern scary favorites like Drag Me To Hell, the horror maestro worked on the 1995 CBS television show, American Gothic.
A quiet, seemingly-quaint small town is ruled over by its charming yet evil sheriff who uses his demonic powers to remove anyone who dares to stand in his way. The only one he fears is a young boy he fathered through rape.
- Release Date
- September 22, 1995
- Main Genre
What Is ‘American Gothic’ About?
American Gothic is set in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina. The town is a picture-perfect, All-American place full of nice houses and white picket fences — but there’s something sinister in the air. That sinister feeling is perpetuated by the sheriff, Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Buck has a hold over the idyllic town and rules it with an iron fist. Buck’s ominous presence holds the town hostage, and no one living there is impervious to his reign. It’s not said specifically who or what Buck is, but all signs point to him being a representation of the Devil, as he often makes deals with the people in his town that screw them over but favor him.
These types of deals typically end up with them being indebted to the sheriff, and he exploits them to carry out heinous acts like murder. He also takes an extreme interest in Caleb Temple (Lucas Black), who is revealed to be Buck’s son and next in line to be his protégé. The tragic story behind Caleb being his son, however, is that Caleb was the result of a rape. That despicable fact sets the tone for the show and how truly sinister Buck is. What makes it worse is that Buck raped Caleb’s mother in front of his older sister. Then, Caleb’s mother committed suicide after he was born. Buck murders Caleb’s sister in the pilot episode and manipulates Caleb’s stepfather into committing suicide. Sheriff Buck, sworn in to protect and serve his town, is evil personified and makes it his mission to torment all the townspeople. As the show carries on, Caleb must decide if he’s on the side of good or the side of Sheriff Buck. Luckily for Caleb, he is guided by ghosts and spirits along the way, including that of his sister. While it’s mostly rooted in human horror, the show has ghosts and dark magic elements that give Trinity an otherworldly feel.
‘American Gothic’ Got Cancelled After One Season
American Gothic debuted on CBS in the fall of 1995 but was canceled after just one season. Looking at the show today, it was beloved by many, and reviews are full of positive thoughts, and there’s even a small cult following for it. However, when American Gothic originally aired, it didn’t get great ratings. On top of that, CBS was also frequently airing episodes out of order. The 22-episode season was hard to follow for viewers who were tuning in back then. There wasn’t streaming, so fans would wait for the episodes only to be disappointed that they had no idea what was happening.
Want to see Paul Giamatti play an evil millionaire who wants to eradicate humanity? Of course you do!
On top of that, some episodes would be omitted entirely. Because of the low ratings, CBS canceled the show, but was it the show or the lack of structure that led to its downfall? I’d be frustrated, too, if I was invested in a show that was released out of order. If you’re interested in watching it now, IMDb has the episodes listed in the correct order for your viewing pleasure. There is also a DVD collection of the show, and because the creative team was given enough notice of cancelation, they were able to clear up the storyline by the final few episodes. Because of the cult following that developed in 2004, there were whispers of creating a full-length film and rebooting the story, but that idea got shelved entirely, according to Cancelled Sci-Fi.
‘American Gothic’ Blurs the Line Between Hero and Villain
Looking back on the show now, it could have rivaled The X-Files and Twin Peaks in the strange and unsettling show category. Focusing on Gary Cole’s Buck as the antagonist and protagonist of the show was an interesting departure from your usual TV lead characters. He plays his role with enough charisma and wit to win over anyone watching, even if he is technically the bad guy. With Buck at the forefront of the show, one of the central themes of American Gothic is the victory of evil. As viewers, we anticipate good to triumph or karma to kick in, but in American Gothic, the only one who triumphs is Buck. He is manipulative and controlling, commits multiple sexual assaults, and coerces many to commit murder. But because he protects his little town of Trinity from outsiders, he feels the townspeople are indebted to him. No one is immune to Buck’s mind control.
Since the show focuses on Sheriff Buck and his ability to be a good guy and a bad guy, we can see the dichotomy of humankind. Buck is terrible, manipulative, and pure evil, but also protective, charismatic, and wise. The show by no means justifies his actions, but it aims to represent how evil can be embedded in those we come to trust. In the 1990s, characters were much more black and white on the good vs. evil scale, and seeing that someone could be both was likely terrifying to audiences of the time. Today’s viewership is much more open-minded, and fans of supernatural horror welcome characters that blur the line between good and evil. On television today, there is sympathy for the “good” bad guy. Some that come to mind are Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley). Dexter and Joe are both literally serial killers, but because the show is told from their point of view, with them being the lead in the show, audiences start to sympathize with and rationalize their actions.
Dexter is viewed as the good guy because he’s killing other bad guys, but the point of the matter is that he’s still killing people. Joe is also revered by many, specifically women, for being a protective figure for his lover; when in reality, he’s controlling, a stalker, and a narcissist. Sheriff Buck can be put in the same equation as Dexter and Joe. He kills, assaults, and manipulates anyone in his path, but he continues to receive support, even from priests and doctors. He receives this support because he backs up his evilness by protecting the town from other types of evil. Episode 7 shows Sheriff Buck protecting the town from four men moving to Trinity and committing crimes. He may have convinced you to kill your neighbor last week, but by golly, he is such a good guy at saving the town. It’s manipulation 101, folks.
Does Good Triumph Over Evil in ‘American Gothic’?
Following Cole is Lucas Black, who plays the young Caleb with such ease. His ability to bounce back and forth between an empathetic and wise child and a slightly devilish menace is astounding for such a young age. Where Buck tends to represent the presence of evil and malevolence at every turn, Caleb represents the power of choice. I say this because he is tasked with a choice that can greatly affect his future in each episode. Does Caleb fall into Buck’s trap, or does he choose to do the “right” thing that opposes what Buck would want him to do? Caleb’s future hangs on a balance of good and evil, and being Buck’s spawn makes him lean towards that evil side, but Caleb’s ability to choose and have free will can change that. He isn’t impervious to Buck’s manipulation, though. In Episode 15, Caleb is cleaning Buck’s office for him but becomes accidentally electrocuted. While in the hospital, Caleb is near death, but Buck saves him and brings him back to life. This, unfortunately, gives Buck a leg up on Caleb. Even if Caleb knows what Buck is doing is evil or wrong, he now feels indebted to him.
On top of those two, we also see a young Sarah Paulson as Merlyn before she became a TV legend with shows like American Horror Story, Ratched, and American Crime Story. If Sheriff Buck represents pure evil, Merlyn represents good, but maybe a more chaotic good. Although her life ended in a very tragic way, she uses her spirit to protect Caleb and help him make the right choices despite Buck. Merlyn is doing her best to protect Caleb but is misguided at times. Even though her time on the show is in ghost form, she feels very human. Her intentions are benign, and she means well, but sometimes she takes it too far, like in the episode where she gives everyone in the town the plague because they’re sinners. The trauma from Buck has carried into the afterlife, and her view of good and evil is black and white.
How Does ‘American Gothic’ Compare to Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’?
American Gothic is both similar and different from other films and shows by Raimi. The quintessential horror by Raimi, to many, is The Evil Dead. It has shaky camera angles, a little bit of slapstick humor, gore, and recurring cameos. American Gothic doesn’t utilize shaky camerawork, humor, or gore, but there is a deadpan sense of black humor that permeates The Evil Dead, too. One scene in American Gothic comes to mind that feels very Raimi. Sheriff Buck is in the town jail and begins whistling The Andy Griffith Show theme song as he goes to stab an inmate to death. Raimi injects that mixture of crafty humor with dark motives into his movies. The show also has a few cameos, including Raimi’s brother, Ted Raimi, and Ash Williams himself, Bruce Campbell. Campbell and Raimi had already worked together on The Evil Dead, and in the future, Campbell would be a cameo in almost every horror movie Raimi made. In American Gothic, Campbell plays Lieutenant Drey, a state police officer and the brother-in-law of one of Buck’s victims.
American Gothic is definitely worth checking out. It has a bit of nostalgia that makes it feel like Goosebumps for adults.
American Gothic is available to buy on Amazon.