American Gothic (1995) s01e01

I was happier than I should be to discover executive producer Sam Raimi didn’t direct this pilot episode of “American Gothic.” Raimi and Rob Tapert’s Renaissance Pictures produced the series (for Universal and CBS), so I just figured Raimi directed the first one. But, no, it’s Peter O’Fallon. Instead of talking about Raimi being unable to direct a TV show, I just get to say O’Fallon’s an exceptionally mediocre TV director. It’s not entirely his fault; it’s the mid-nineties, and it’s TV. There’s hacky CGI to shoot for, there’s some video footage split in, and there’s whatever’s going on with Ernest Holzman’s photography. Hopefully, O’Fallon won’t be the show’s template but given his bare competence doing a genre show with supernatural special effects… it’s kind of amazing when the show gets great.

The show doesn’t get great and stay great; it just has enough great scenes, sometimes cut short by commercial breaks (still the bane of narrative flow), sometimes just gone wrong. The show gets through its rocky but compelling start by the halfway mark. In time for Paige Turco’s graveyard exposition dump to be forgiven, even as O’Fallon misses they’ve dressed Turco in a Southern Gothic hooded cape thing, and he doesn’t know how to shoot for it. “Close-ups O’Fallon” is not an inappropriate nickname.

Thank goodness he’s not back directing.

Shaun Cassidy gets the script and creator credit for “Gothic.” He’s responsible for the episode’s considerable successes, though it’s all about getting it to the right actors. Just one episode in and “Gothic” has four outstanding performances. Top-billed Gary Cole’s murderous Southern sheriff, garbage human being Nick Searcy as his conflicted deputy, Sarah Paulson as the traumatized, non-verbal girl Cole murders in the third scene (which Searcy witnesses), and Lucas Black as Paulson’s little brother. Paulson has the best moment in the episode; now a spirit, she’s called Black back to their house (and her murder scene), so she can show him Cole rape their mother ten years ago, watching his own conception.

The mom’s long dead, their dad (Sonny Shroyer) cracked in the first scene and went after Paulson with a shovel—Cole was being opportunistic in killing her—and Black’s got to know the truth if there’s going to be a show.

The episode also introduces the good guys—Jake Weber as a town doctor, a Yankee moved down South to better the place, and Turco. Turco is Black’s adult cousin (we don’t get the family tree just yet) who left town when her parents mysteriously died in a fire… their bodies discovered by Cole, who must’ve been a teenager or something. Unclear at this point.

Then Brenda Bakke is Cole’s femme fatale accomplice. She’s the good girl school teacher by dawn, Southern vixen by night. Weber and Bakke are both quite good; they’re just quite good for 1995 television. They’re not transcending like the four top-tier performances.

Turco’s just okay. It’s not a great part this episode. She’s literally inserting herself into the plot, and there’s not room. She’s got some good moments, though. Unfortunately not the graveyard monologue… Five Easy Pieces it’s not.

At the start of the episode, I was more than a little concerned with the nineties Renaissance Studios mise-en-scene (i.e., brightly lighted, artless action sequences and lousy CGI), but “Gothic” comes through thanks to writing and casting. I do hope future directors are a little better with composition, establishing shots, and spotlighting performances; the cast shouldn’t have to hoist the whole thing up, regardless of their ability.

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