‘American Gothic’ Series Premiere: Keeping It in the Family

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Inspired in part by real-life serial killer Dennis Rader, better known as “The BTK Killer,” who hails from creator Corinne Brinkerhoff’s home-state of Kansas, “American Gothic” is less interested in the grisly doings of its particular baddie, here dubbed “The Silver Bells Killer,” than in the repercussions of his actions on his family, in the interestingly-titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black.”

The title seemingly refers to the painting more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” by American painter James McNeill Whistler, which is sort of the Victorian equivalent to the Mona Lisa. Not entirely sure of the significance here, save perhaps to denote that this is an all-American family, which just so happens to have potentially produced a serial killer.

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The fun- if you want to call it that- begins when a piece of a tunnel in Boston falls onto the road, crushing a car beneath it and just nearly missing, ironically enough, the daughter of the man whose construction company built it. This would be Mitchell Hawthorne (Jamey Sheridan, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, patriarch of the uber-rich Hawthorne clan.

Unfortunately for him, it also unearths a belt with fingerprints on it from a victim that connects to an unsolved case involving the aforementioned “Silver Bells Killer,” which could potentially point the finger at Mitchell himself, especially if a DNA test proves fruitful. This revelation proves to much for the man, who promptly keels over from a heart attack at his daughter’s press conference, where, as a candidate for Mayor, Alison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance, “The Knick”) vows to get to the bottom of the SBK killer case once and for all.

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Mitchell survives the incident, but it also make him reassess things, and he tells his wife Madeline (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”) of his intentions to “come clean” about something, leading her to promptly finish the man off by squeezing his breathing apparatus shut, clearly fearing the repercussions of the revelation on her family.

Meanwhile, sister Tessa (Megan Ketch, “Jane the Virgin”) accidentally finds a box while going through stuff in the family work-shed, helping her recovering-addict brother Cam (Justin Chatwin, “Shameless”) ferret out some drugs he stashed years ago, in hopes of keeping it out of his hands.

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It contains a host of newspaper clippings- from a paper their father owns, with cartoons by Cam in them, no less, lest there be any doubt who this belongs to- and several silver bells. But is the box their father’s? Cam wonders if it couldn’t also belong to their estranged brother, Garrett (Antony Starr, “Banshee”), the eldest of the family, who has lived in Maine ever since leaving under mysterious circumstances years ago out of nowhere.

He certainly fits the bill of a crazy person, being as how he shaves with a hunting knife and bonds with Cam’s serial-killer-in-the-making son Jack (Gabriel Bateman, “Outcast”) over perverse nature facts. The very fact that Jack is so weird, drawing pictures of people being tortured and dismembered and the like would seem to indicate that such things may run in the family.

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Be that as it may, Garrett nonetheless wastes no time in visiting his father before his untimely death, whispering to him that he’s going to “tell ’em it was you.” This bit of info is reported to Alison by her- what else?- creepy kids, twins Harper and Violet (Natalie and Nora Prinzen-Klages), who overheard it while hiding under Mitchell’s hospital bed. You know, as you do when you’re creepy twins.

Garrett claims to have only returned at the behest of Tessa, who was heartbroken when Garrett left, having looked up to him since she was a child. Indeed, it would seem as if Garrett was once an all-American overachiever with the world at his fingertips once upon a time, before some unknown occurrence sent him heading for the hills- or at least the east coast. Perhaps discovering his old man was the Silver Bells Killer?

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Adding to the fun is the fact that Tessa is married to a detective that just so happened to be assigned to the reopened SBK case, in light of the newly-found evidence, Brady (Elliot Knight, “Once Upon a Time”), which could either come in handy- or lead to his imminent demise, depending on how things go from here.

Tessa and Cam also fill in big sis Alison on their findings, with Tessa wondering if it could be their father, while Cam leans more towards Garrett. Fearing the negative impact it could have on her ongoing campaign, she begs them to sit on the info until the election of November 9th, at which point she promises to look further into it, which they agree to do, though it doesn’t stop them from doing a little side research in the meantime at the local library.

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That was about it for the premiere, save some intimations that there might be something going on between the married Ali and her female campaign manager Naomi (Maureen Sebastian, “Revolution”), and that Cam seems to backslide into using again, hooking up with bad influence ex Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas, “Defiance”), aka Jack’s mom, after she shows up at the hospital.

Produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin’, also behind past CBS semi-successes “Under the Dome” and “Extant” (hey, they ran for several seasons each, so that’s something), and Oprah’s Book Club’s Most Wanted, infamous author James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces”), who knows a thing or two about addiction- or enough to convincingly make it up, at least- the show is the brainchild of Corinne Brinkerhoff, a long way from her usual fare, such as “Jane the Virgin” and “The Good Wife.”

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Then again, the husband/wife team behind the latter also came up with the similarly-twisted “BrainDead,” so maybe there’s something in the air this summer. Regardless, this is a fun little time-waster, with a solid enough cast and a nifty enough hook to keep one watching, at least for a relatively breezy self-contained thirteen episodes. (If the show is renewed, it will center on a new mystery involving a new family in a new location each season.)

I love a good mystery, and though the show seems less concerned with the more gruesome aspects of the case at hand, the very fact that it focuses on how it might affect the family of someone accused of being a serial killer could still be interesting, and it will be fun trying to determine who all knew what was going on- and whether anyone is looking to follow in the SBK’s footsteps- or at least cover them up.

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It’s far too soon to make any calls, but I will say that Garrett seems way too obvious a choice to be a serial killer’s apprentice, not to mention the fact that he seemed to be disgusted by something his father did, not onboard with it. He seems more like someone mentally scarred by something like that than capable of it himself.

I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Madeline is actually the killer and her husband was the one covering for her- it would be a neat twist, given that most serial killers tend to be male. Besides, she’s not above killing someone, obviously, if she’s willing to take out her own husband. We’ll see in the weeks to come, I guess.

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What did you think of the premiere of “American Gothic”? Are you in for the season? Did you find any of the characters particularly appealing? Or revolting, for that matter? (That kid Jack…someone definitely needs to keep an eye on him- poor Caramel!) Any early predictions? Sound off down below and I’ll check in later on in the season!