“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s according to Leo Tolstoy, who would have to reconceive the opening of Anna Karenina if he were writing it today. In fact, many fictional families—especially on television—are unhappy in exactly the same way. They’re perfect on the outside, but beneath the Rockwellian surface lie horrific, murderous secrets pushing the family to its breaking point. Whether it’s the Rayburns of Bloodline, the Crawfords of Secrets And Lies, or the Warrens of The Family, television is overrun with attractive clans for whom the phrase “skeletons in the closet” isn’t idiomatic.
Enter the Hawthornes of the CBS summer thriller American Gothic, the latest entry into the family-with-secrets subgenre. The Hawthornes’ predicament isn’t especially original, but it is darker and more intense than such shows tend to be. The pilot opens with Tessa Ross (née Hawthorne) and her husband Brady (Elliot Knight) headed to the palatial family estate to coalesce around the mayoral campaign of Alison (Juliet Rylance), the Hawthornes’ golden child. Even the family screw-up Cam (Justin Chatwin) is the successful creator of a Dilbert-like comic strip. Just as the Hawthornes are beginning a new chapter, family patriarch Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan) falls ill, leading his children to the shocking realization that their father might be a serial killer.
That would be bad enough but the siblings also come to suspect the involvement of prodigal son Garrett (Antony Starr), who returns home to wait by Mitchell’s bedside after a lengthy, unexplained estrangement. Is Mitchell the infamous Silver Bells Killer, the strangler with the twee habit of leaving handbells at his murder scenes? And could Garrett be responsible for helping him cover up the murders, or even committing them himself? American Gothic has a solid enough story for a 13-episode summer series, as it’s the type of empty yet salacious subject matter that would make it an irresistible beach read. But in the first two episodes screened for critics, the show is already threatening to buckle under its own weight.
Gothic has a lot in common with ABC’s since-cancelled The Family, including the return of a long-lost son, a pathological criminal, and an election hanging in the balance. It also has the same problems The Family faced, namely the ever-present fear that there might not be enough material to sustain its premise without trotting out an army of red herrings or introducing left-field twists. The earlier show wriggled out of the trap by revealing its central mystery only halfway through its single season, but Gothic can’t really do that, unless the plan is to make the show like Blue Bloods but with a family of murderers instead of cops. This is a traditional whodunnit, which means in all likelihood, the show will only reveal its secrets to the viewers loyal enough to stick with it until the end.
The show is handsome and well-acted enough to earn that type of loyalty, with an ensemble including Virginia Madsen, who plays Madeline, the family matriarch who knows more than she initially lets on. Meanwhile, the invariably irritating Chatwin has finally found a role that compliments his unctuousness. And the pilot is well-constructed from a writing standpoint, a creation of former The Good Wife writer Corinne Brinkerhoff. There’s enough to like about Gothic to earn it a probationary DVR slot until its story derails.
And the story probably will derail at some point, because Gothic is the kind of show that is bound to work better as a miniseries. But as a summer series on CBS, it’s almost certain to be renewed for a second season, which might temper some of the enthusiasm the audience has for the first season. This is a post-The Killing, post-Lost world in which serialization breeds suspicion and viewers need more reassurance than ever that their investment will yield dividends in the short term and the long term. (Not to mention the rise of the true-crime docuseries, which tend to be more engrossing than their fictional counterparts.) Whether Gothic has enough energy to go the distance remains to be seen, but as it stands, the show isn’t urgent except for people who have a bottomless appetite for this kind of story, or those who have yet to taste it.