American Gothic is a southern Gothic tale set in Trinity, South Carolina, where the most important person in town is Sheriff Lucas Buck, played by Gary Cole. Most people associate him with Office Space, but he'll always be Lucas Buck to me. It's like the role was made for him. Now, Lucas Buck is not the Devil himself, according to the creators, but he's close enough. He's always making deals that don't exactly turn out the way you expect them to. He can turn his swaggering charm on and off at the drop of the hat, leaving you with a manipulative beast not to be toyed with. But he's only doing it for the good of the community, after all. And, really, he only gave you the rope; you're the one who tied the noose.
Our protagonist is Caleb Temple, played by Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade and the X-Files movie. Lucas Buck takes a particular interest in him for reasons that will become clear in the pilot. Opposing him, however, is Caleb's sister Merlyn, played by Sarah Paulson, most recently of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (here, she's a brunette and still very pretty). Merlyn is alive for about five minutes, but it's a good thing she's on a supernatural show, since she gets to spend the series as a ghost. The main focus of the show is Merlyn and Lucas fighting the eternal battle between good and evil as manifested in the struggle for Caleb.
But there's also Gail Emory, Caleb's cousin, a reporter who comes to town both to take care of Caleb and to finally get some answers about her parents' deaths. And Dr. Matt Crower, another recent transplant who takes a liking to Caleb and a disliking to Sheriff Buck. And Selena Coons, the sultry siren of a schoolteacher who also happens to be Sheriff Buck's lover. And Ben Healey, Buck's protégée, who isn't sure how to continue working for a man whose motto is "All guilt is relative, loyalty counts, and never let your conscience be your guide."
At the heart of the show is the theme of choice. Nearly every episode involves Lucas Buck fucking someone over not by specifically doing anything to him but allowing him to make the wrong choices all by himself. Caleb Temple can choose whether he wants to accept Lucas's mentorship or not. The town is full of flawed characters who can choose whether Lucas's help is the kind of help they need (hint: it never is).
American Gothic had the same behind-the-scenes drama that plagues most cult hits. The people who bought the pilot were fired by the time the show went to air, and the new people were totally behind the show...as long as they made some changes. This may account for the fact that the first few episodes start off very strongly with a lot of momentum, and then the episodes get a little repetitive (Lucas sways Caleb for about forty minutes until Caleb decides he hates him again at the end, lather, rinse, repeat). At some point, Cassidy and Co. saw the writing on the wall, and they knew they weren't going to be back, so they started writing toward ending the series in the finale. About halfway through the series, the show gets really good again as the arc kicks back into gear. Crazy shit happens in the epic finale.
The show is not without its flaws, though. The special effects in 1995 were not very good, so that can be a little distracting. At times, the technique of flashing ominous images to create moodiness is overdone. I'm not sure the worldbuilding is completely sound, as the rules regarding the supernatural elements seem to change when it's convenient. Most maddeningly, however, characterization feels wildly inconsistent. You can have what look like really important character moments in an episode that don't seem to have any repercussions at all in future episodes (it doesn't help that some very important things happened in episodes that were unaired and CBS aired the show out of order (even the DVDs don't have the episodes in the right order).
Despite the flaws, however, it's still a great show that is likely different from what you're used to. It's the kind of show you might not want to watch in the dark, alone, because there's nothing happy about it. It's dark and twisted and creepy, like any good example of the southern Gothic. And you'll never, ever forget Lucas Buck. If you watch the show for no other reason, watch for Gary Cole's portrayal of pure, unadulterated evil. And remember:
Someone's at the door.