American Gothic (1995) s01e02 – A Tree Grows in Trinity

Tree picks up immediately after the pilot, only it’s been however many months since they shot the pilot, and now they’re filming for fall airdates. Lucas Black and Sarah Paulson are both a little visibly older, Jake Weber’s got a completely different haircut, Paige Turco’s costumes are better, and Gary Cole’s even eviler.

With the previous episode, I was worried the lackluster mid-nineties CGI special effects and bewildering “horror” direction would set the tone for the series itself, regardless of the director returning. Unfortunately, the regular series seems to be doing more bad CGI effects and editing transitions with less money for the effects. More bad effects. It looks goofy.

But it also doesn’t matter. The show survives the bad special effects, the unimpressive direction (Michael Katleman), and photography (Stephen McNutt). It excels, in fact. Not despite its technical failings but indifferent to them. Once the actors start talking, nothing else matters.

The show’s split between the good guys—Black, Weber, Turco—and the bad guys—Cole, Brenda Bakke—with Paulson detached because she’s an ethereal being. Everyone else is a pawn in some way or another, most obviously Nick Searcy, who’s got a great, awkward scene with Weber to kick the episode off.

There are a couple guest stars this episode: Arnold Vosloo (still during his “Renaissance Productions-only” phase) and David Lenthall. Vosloo’s an out-of-town reporter who’s got one heck of a story to tell, while Lenthall is the county coroner. He’s got to do autopsies on Paulson and her father, except Cole doesn’t want anyone finding out he snapped Paulson’s neck and whatever happened with the dad. And Lenthall owes Cole.

Paulson doesn’t take kindly to Lenthall screwing up her autopsy and letting her murderer go free, so she causes a supernatural incident in the morgue. It’s so much bad special effects at once—and Lenthall’s bad—it seems like the show’s going to derail. But then the regular cast takes over, and things smooth out again.

While Weber’s not on the level of Black, Cole, or Searcy, he takes it up a notch this episode as he gets to interact with Bakke for the first time. There are some nice muted character reveals and development, and Weber works them in beautifully. And Turco’s better, though she’s still just hanging around. Bakke’s Southern belle femme fatale is captivating, even if the characterization’s not without its issues.

Series creator Shaun Cassidy again gets the script credit, with the episode really finishing up the pilot responsibilities. It might’ve been nice for CBS to let them do a two-hour premiere… or at least give them enough money to keep the effects on the same level. But, no, “American Gothic” appears it will have some lousy mid-1990s TV show CGI.

And I do not care.

Because the rest of it, even when the cast’s interacting with that lousy CGI, more than makes up for it. I’d forgotten TV could look terrible and still be great, thanks to the actors and writers, back when it was more filmed stage productions than segmented movies.

Anyway.

“American Gothic” gets great by the end of this episode. It’s incredible.

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