American Gothic (1995 - 1996)
American Gothic is a supernatural drama that was cancelled after just one 22 episode season. Its cancellation was a shame, because it's a darned good show that had potential.
The show is set in a small Louisiana town called Trinity, which is controlled by the local Sheriff, Lucas Buck (Gary Cole), who happens to be a sort of demon or evil spirit. It begins with Buck killing the sister and father of a young boy, Caleb (Lucas Black). Turns out Caleb is Lucas's illegitimate child, and he now wants to take care of the boy, presumably to raise him as a successor. Caleb's cousin Gail (Paige Turco) shows up from out of town to take care of Caleb and keep him away from Lucas. She also attempts to investigate the death of her parents, whom she believes were killed by Lucas years earlier. A doctor at the local hospital, Matt Crower (Jake Weber), is suspicious about the deaths of Caleb's family members and tries to keep Lucas away from Caleb. Caleb's dead sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson) appears as a ghost who attempts to guide him and steer him clear of Lucas's influence. Other main characters include Selena (Brenda Bakke), the seductive schoolteacher and ally / girlfriend of Lucas Buck, and the weak willed Deputy Ben Healy (Nick Searcy), who's constantly torn between doing the right thing and not getting in the Sheriff's way.
You'll note that the word Lucas pops up a lot in the last paragraph. The guy is the show in many ways - virtually everything that happens ends up with him getting involved or being the cause. He works with subtlety, using his supernatural powers to be at the right place at the right time, and to manipulate people to do his work for him. He helps people out in exchange for help from them in the future. In many ways, he's like the supernatural Godfather of Trinity. The typical episode features characters that Lucas manipulates, or who come to Lucas for help. He exploits the situation to maximize his own benefit. Caleb usually struggles with growing up, and is presented with situations and people that he can deal with in different ways. His ghostly sister usually tries to set him on the right path, and Lucas tries to tempt him to the dark side - and surprisingly, he doesn't always "do the right thing". Dr. Crower, Gail, Selena and Deputy Healy get involved in some way or the other, and are occasionally central to the episode.
Sounds formulaic, but it actually isn't. The basic concept is simple, but it's played out in many different ways, particularly with respect to Lucas's manipulations. There's a story arc that plays out slowly over the course of the season - the continuity is good when the show is watched in the correct order, and not the stupid order that the DVDs are released in. There are some jarring changes made along the way, at least one of which felt forced and was to the show's detriment (the replacement of a major character with another). The writing is a good mixture of horror, drama, and comedy, all of which is executed really well on screen. The show is also surprisingly dark and edgy, dealing with horror and subject matter that was rare at the time. It also features a lot of witty innuendo. Characters are developed well throughout the season - they have past histories and motivations, and as one character points out in an episode, they've all suffered and are haunted by their pasts. It ain't cheerful - like I said, it's a fairly dark show.
Production values are good - there are no weak links, and what special effects there are, are good for the time. The show is very atmospheric - the town itself feels like an oppressive place with dark secrets hidden beneath its pleasant exterior. Some of the horror bits are genuinely creepy, and given that this is a Sam Raimi production, there's some crazy slapstick like whip-pan camera horror on display. Raimi regulars Bruce Cambell and Ted Raimi make memorable guest appearances as well. The moody music and lighting adds to the atmosphere.
The performances are quite strong from the entire cast - no one comes across as one dimensional. I'll get to Gary Cole in a minute, because he deserves a special mention. Out of everyone else, Lucas Black as Caleb manages to be conflicted and childlike without being annoyingly cute and kiddy. Jake Weber as Dr. Crower exudes a sense of decency and integrity while being haunted and weary at the same time - Matt Crower was one of my favourite characters on the show. Nick Searcy as Deputy Ben is great and provides a lot of the comic relief, but also deals with some interesting dilemmas. Paige Turco plays Gail as tenacious and strong willed, but becomes vulnerable as the series progresses. Brenda Bakke's Selena is gorgeous and incredibly seductive, almost comically so at times, but she's also afforded the opportunity to exhibit some emotional depth. The weakest of the cast is probably Sarah Paulson as the angelic ghost Merlyn - she's played a little too sweetly for my taste, although the writing is admittedly also at fault.
Which brings me to Gary Cole. The man is incredible - despite being the bad guy, you can't help but root for him, especially when many of the people he exploits are despicable in their own way. Lucas Buck is incredibly charismatic and charming - Cole's comic timing and delivery is exceptional. He also routinely switches from being really funny to really menacing in the blink of an eye. Sure, the character doesn't have a wide emotional range, but what's there is golden. It's a great character that's written well, but the lines need to be delivered well for them to work, and Gary Cole never misses a beat.
American Gothic is not without its flaws - the occasionally inconsistent characters seem to behave capriciously and illogically at times. Also, there are lapses in logic that stretch credulity to their limits - like the way supernatural occurrences aren't dwelt upon by the characters. The other problem is pacing - in terms of each episode and the series as a whole, it takes its own sweet time, and occasionally I felt it was just a little too slow. These flaws are sometimes glaring, but don't detract too much from a very strong first (and sadly, only) season, which ends in a way that is fairly satisfying as an end to the entire series. Viewers can leave to their imaginations the events that follow the climactic final scene.
American Gothic is a dark and entertaining ride that's well worth taking, if only to watch Gary Cole play the coolest demonic entity you've ever seen.