An American family is caught in the middle of a national scandal as its members grapple with secrets and cover-ups. If this sounds familiar it’s because ABC treaded in these treacherously familiar waters earlier this year with the Joan Allen starrer “The Family.” The show also shouldn’t be confused as a revival of the short-lived suspense drama series from the mid-90s “American Gothic” which starred Gary Cole. And you also shouldn’t confuse it with the 1988 horror film of the same title. Now that we got that cleared up, the latest “American Gothic” is tediously predictable and unexpectedly funny at times for all the wrong reasons. If CBS thinks it can revive the trite family mystery genre with behemoth producer Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV production company behind it, it was deeply mistaken.
Set in current day Boston, the Hawthornes are a picturesque snapshot of white upper-middle class, a “walking Normal Rockwell painting” as one character put it – on the outside they’re the ideal image of exemplary America, but below the surface sinister things brew, threatening to disrupt their bubble of representing all that is well and normal in society and ruining the adult childrens’ reputations and established careers. If you remember – and watched the now cancelled show – Allen had political aspirations on “The Family,” well so does Alison (Juliet Rylance), the eldest Hawthorne daughter, a city councilor member running for Mayor of Boston. And with a contentious race underway, she can’t afford to have any shady rumors rumble to the surface like the ones her youngest siblings discover in their parents’ home when the family patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) is hospitalized. The family then finds itself about to be in the middle of gossips surrounding a spree of Boston murders that took place 15 year earlier, with the killer still free.
Asking viewers to be invested for the remainder of this 13-part series while we scratch our heads as to whodunit? is beyond most persons capacities to demonstrate patience, especially when it’s so hard to take this series seriously right out the gate. Tessa (Megan Ketch), the youngest daughter, is married to Brady (Elliot Knight), a police officer who remarks he just made detective during a family get-together. What a convenient (lazy) way to have a badge infiltrate this family along the way and help uncover who they really are. Not even when the quiet brooding older brother Garret (Antony Starr) arrives does it add a sense of care or investment in our part over his long disappearance or why he’s returned. Virginia Madsen plays the mother Madeline, a pretty unmemorable woman in the premiere who looks like she might have more material and screen time from now on. Let’s hope. And then there’s Cam (Justin Chatwin) a comic strip artist/junkie with an unforgettable son named Jack (Gabriel Bateman). “I think there’s something wrong with Jack,” Cam confesses to his estranged wife mid-way through the episode. You bet your ass there is. Jack is 90 percent of the reason this show is hard to take seriously. An artist like his dad, Jack aspires to be a medical examiner when he grows up so he can perform autopsies. When he’s not leaving macabre pictures lying around the house of dead people with detailed ligature marks, he’s torturing small animals with genuine innocent wonder. He’s too cute and curious to be that kid from Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” so he just comes off as an unexpected comedy source.
Then there’s the whole artistry angle, as if the title – the same name of the famous painting of a farmer and his wife holding a pitchfork – and Norman Rockwell reference weren’t enough, each episode wants to remind you of how images can be deceiving. If you notice, every episode is named after a famous American paining. The season premiere, “Arranged in Grey and Black” more famously known as the “Whistler’s Mother” was an oil painting by James McNeill Whistler from the late 1800s. And if the remainder 12 episodes follow suit, each one will have a tableau of a painting somewhere in the episode that feels too creatively constricted and obviously framed. “This can’t be what it looks like?” Tessa asks her siblings when she begins to uncover unsettling details into her family’s soon-to-be un-reputable dynasty. Unfortunately, it is what it looks like and just like the paintings it appropriates we’ve seen it all before.