Warning: This contains mild spoilers
What is it with rich, white families and secrets? Every family has the odd skeleton in the closet, but if they’re wealthy and Caucasian, they’re almost guaranteed to be the subject of a TV show involving estranged relatives, dead bodies and mysterious old photos found in the attic.
Hot on the heels of Season 2 of Netflix’s Bloodline comes American Gothic, from CBS, which premieres on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. And sure enough, it’s a predictable, privileged affair, as we follow The Hawthornes, who find themselves facing an unexpected question: what if their newly deceased father was a serial killer?
We arrive at that unlikely dilemma via a bridge collapse in downtown Boston. Is anyone hurt in the incident? Could it happen again? Why ponder such trivial things when there are more important matters at hand, such as the old remains of a victim of the infamous Silver Bells Killer found inside the cement, which came from the Hawthorne family’s company, and the group’s grief over the death of their patriarch, Mitch (Jamey Sheridan). After all, it wasn’t their concrete that was responsible for the bridge collapse anyway, so who cares?
Political daughter Alison (Juliet Rylance) is quick to capitalise on events, promising that if she’s elected mayor, she’ll do everything she can to expose and arrest the Silver Bells Killer. The trouble is that her sister, Tessa (Megan Ketch), has just discovered a box of silver bells (the tinkling hallmark of the serial killer, who left them by his victims’ bodies) in the family home, along with her dad’s possessions.
The ensuing mix of mystery and melancholy brings everyone back to the family home – fresh from the pages of Drama Cliches 101. There’s the estranged son, Garrett (Anthony Starr), who seems to know more than he’s letting on about his dad’s old habits. There’s the other son, Cam (Justin Chatwin), a hipster cartoonist with a drug habit and a son, Jack (Gabriel Bateman), with a penchant for drawing people dying. There’s Alison, who’s ruthlessly running for office. And there’s Tessa, whose ony defining characteristic is that she has a boyfriend who happens to be a policeman: Brady (Elliot Knight).
Watching over them all is Madeline (Virginia Madsen) the stony-faced matriarch who will go to any length to avoid her husband’s hidden history being dragged out into daylight.
The cast do their best with the ropy sketch from Corinne Brinkerhoff (whose past credits include The Good Wife and Elementary), but they can’t inject any sympathy or substance into such standard proceedings: this is closer to American Soap Opera than American Gothic. Within the first two episodes, evidence has been supiciously removed, a picture of someone wearing the same belt as the bridge victim has surfaced, and Brady is racing against time to bag some DNA from Mitch’s corpse.
It sounds interesting on paper, but in practice, it’s surprising dull. The most interesting thing about it all is the house the Hawthornes live in, with its perfectly formed wall of photographs and picturesque conservatory with plush cushions. Even that, though, isn’t very Gothic and is really just a plot device designed to provide as many hiding places as possible for Important Objects to stumble upon in each new episode.
“The key is keeping you relatable to working-class constituents,” says Alison’s campaign manager, as they wander the property, planning a press conference. They swiftly decide to use the campaign office instead. After two hours with these well-off stereotypes, you can’t blame them – it is hard to relate to these two-dimensional characters. As for who the killer is, it could be any of them, from the dazed and clueless Mitch to the calculating Madeline. Heck, it could even be eight-year-old Jack, who will no doubt grow up to become a serial killer anyway. There’s potential here for an interesting reveal further down the line, but the odds are unlikely. So far, we’ve got the estranged relatives and the mysterious old photos, but what American Gothic desperately needs are some dead bodies – preferably by bumping off the whole family.
American Gothic is available to watch online in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US debut.