This summer, CBS is fully embracing the concept of summer series with several high concepts, and yes, slightly campy, limited series’. Along with the second season of Zoo and the new horror comedy Braindead, American Gothic rounds out these quirky series’. Like Braindead, from the minds of Robert and Michelle King, American Gothic also comes from one of the creative minds behind The Good Wife. Corinne Brinkerhoff, a smiley writer who got her start working on Boston Legal, might seem like an unlikely person to create a soapy TV series focused on the mystery of a serial killer. In fact, Brinkerhoff says she embraces the use of gallows humor, and draws inspiration from shows like Fargo, Orange is the New Black, and True Detective which draw humor from character interactions during dramatic narratives.
The dark humor on the show was vital for making sure the series didn’t feel relentlessly grim…which it could if played with complete seriousness. The show focuses on a wealthy family, who in the first episode (premiered last Tuesday, available online) sees the family potentially exposed when their cement business is suddenly under investigation, when a collapsed tunnel reveals a dead body. The stress of that discovery leads their patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) to suffer a heart attack and ultimately be killed. Besides the return of long-lost son Garrett (Antony Starr of Banshee) after the heart attack, the family also finds a collection of Christmas silver bells, leading younger siblings (Megan Ketch of Jane the Virgin and Justin Chatwin of Shameless) to believe someone in the family may be the infamous, but never discovered, Silver Bells Murderer. Veteran actress Virginia Madsen plays matriarch Madeline Hawthorne, and British actress Juliet Rylance plays oldest daughter (and mayoral candidate) Alison.
Rylance is best known to American audiences for her role in The Knick, a series which is produced very differently than American Gothic. On that Cinemax series, all 10 episodes were written before production started, whereas on American Gothic (still filming when doing press for the show) she went in blind. And yet, she says “I’m actually loving that part of it. When you’re doing Shakespeare or a classic play, you are spending a lot of time mapping the journey. And I can’t do that with this character.” Even while filming episode 9, the cast’s still in the dark regarding the mystery of who the murderer is, which makes even the actors question the family characters, as Rylance says “the more you stare at them, the more you think it’s possible.”
The series has a smart mix of Agatha Christie mystery and ’80s evening soap opera camp, which is made even more entertainingly popcorn fun by setting it in a world of high-class, economic wealth, and political intrigue. The show is set in the Boston area (Brinkerhoff went to college at Boston University), and besides her own familiarity with the area, she felt it was the perfect setting because ”There were notorious serial killers in that part of the country and there’s a history of massive construction projects which factor into the backstory and mythology.” Like Braindead, which focuses on DC politics, premiering American Gothic during the presidential elections is no accident, as the real world news adds a resonance and added satire to the series. Rylance notes about her character’s mayor candidacy, that “It’s television, everything has that glossy stamp on it, but this kind of the behind the scenes stuff is really interesting. We have a lot of scenes at my campaign headquarters and one of the other candidates finds some dirt on me and the question is, how the hell do you stop it from coming out. Every time I see something about Trump or Bernie or Hilary I’m constantly thinking how many aids figured that out. I think it’s mirroring (the political climate).”
Allison stepped into the role of the family’s golden child and great hope for the dynasty’s future when her brilliant older brother disappeared. Rylance believes that when the show starts, “the only person stronger than her is her mother, who has everyone wrapped around her finger.” It’s a perfect role for Madsen, although she has less to do in the first episode, she’s front and center after Sheridan’s absence. Rylance clearly cherishes working with Madsen, who she describes as amazing and says “Watching her work and the way she comes to set is amazing. I’m actually learning so much from her.”
She also has high praise for Starr, an intense actor originally from New Zealand known for his leading role on Banshee. Rylance says of her onscreen big brother, “Anthony’s one of those actors who won’t let you get away with anything. If you say a line and he doesn’t believe it, he just kind of stares and won’t answer it. Which is really what you want, because if he doesn’t believe it, the audience won’t believe it.”
Brinkerhoff describes her entire cast with nothing but praise, saying audiences are also certain to fall in love with Megan Ketch, and finds Justin Chatwin to be particularly skilled at selling the show’s gallows humor because “there’s a particular magic to how Justin brings something specific and authentic to the character. He’s chosen this physicality to the character and his choices aren’t at all about dialogue or story, but about the physical embodiment of the character. I think he’s really remarkable that way.”
But the character audiences will likely be talking the most about this season, will be Chatwin’s TV son Jack, played by child actor Gabriel Bateman (most recently on Cinemax’s Outcast). Jack could be the creepiest kid on TV since those Dexter flashbacks, who in the first episode does terrible things to a cat. On creating such a character, Brinkerhoff is coy about his storyline, saying “He’s very disturbing but you’ll see a shift, and then it will shift again. One of the things we’re playing with is nature v.s. nurture and asking if psychopathic behavior is hereditary. If there is a gene, this kid obviously has it. He’s the living evidence that there is something array in this family…or maybe he’s just a bizarrely curious kid.” Rylance is more than impressed by Bateman, who will happily improv with the adult actors and is the rare breed of child actor that happens to “love acting.”
The show will only be on for 13 episodes, and Brinkerhoff is upfront when she calls this show a miniseries, saying “It was very important to me to tell a compelling, satisfying story in 13 episodes as opposed to artificially extending it. We thought of it as a compelling summer novel broken up into 13 chapters. And I wanted audiences to feel like they’d gone on this ride, but by the end they’d have an answer and were satisfied.” Rather than leaving the door open for more episodes next summer, the show has been developed as an anthology, like True Detective, Fargo, or American Horror Story…she has 5 more story ideas which all use the similar themes focusing on a complicated family with a dark mystery.
As for the title, the show’s title may seem like it has little to do with the famous painting of an older couple standing on a farm holding a pitchfork…but she says the image does resonate in the writing (although the actual title came from a pitch paragraph early on). Art plays a role in the series as inspiration, with each episode pulling a title from a famous American work of art, based on their thematic resonance, and each episode paying homage to the painting somewhere in the episode.
American Gothic airs Wednesdays at 10pm on CBS.