I don't actually give; I deal. Are you ready to make a deal?
—Sheriff Lucas Buck
Welcome to Trinity, South Carolina. A quaint, lovely town of picturesque houses, white picket fences, old-growth forest, and friendly next-door neighbors. Good People. There's only one slight problem with this beautiful idyllic town where everyone knows everybody (and their juiciest secrets for the gossip chain):Its premier lawman, Sheriff Lucas Buck, is the Devil.American Gothic was a horror television series, which lasted for 1 season, from September 1995 to July 1996. A unique, outstanding series never given a chance by its network (CBS, in this case), American Gothic was also one of the most chilling and disturbing series ever to air, a stark morality tale with Gary Cole as the Devil incarnate (or a close kin), disguised as Sheriff Lucas Buck of the small town of Trinity, SC. Buck rules over his little kingdom with morbid humor and playfulness, setting up moral pitfalls and dilemmas for the town's inhabitants, and dispensing his own brand of justice or vengeance or just plain meanness—which often involves ruin, insanity, dismemberment, or death.Opposing Buck is young Caleb Temple (played by Lucas Black), an orphan who talks regularly to his dead sister Merlyn and who has powers of his own—and who may or may not be Buck's son. Buck wants Caleb to follow him; Merlyn wants Caleb to resist; and the rest of Trinity gets caught in the crossfire, so to speak. What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic??The writing, acting, and directing are all outstanding, with the cast rounded out by skeptical Dr. Matt Crower and Caleb's cousin, Gail Emory. You'll never look at Gary Cole the same way again. Or, for that matter, Shaun Cassidy—yes, the "Hardy Boys" teen heart-throb—who conceived and produced the show, along with Sam Raimi. The effects, though good for their time, aren't always the best, sometimes the plot developments were a little too predictable, and later on in the series there were quite a few Out Of Character Moments, but this is most likely due to Executive Meddling and the show being Screwed by the Network, not any problems with the writer.Unsurprisingly, the show is darkly Gothic and twisted, displaying many horror, suspense, and mystery tropes—although there is a delicious amount of black comedy as well.Not to be confused with Grant Wood's famous painting.
This series provides examples of:
Achilles Heel - Sheriff Lucas Buck's vulnerability is his third eye—if stabbed there, he could be killed.
Back from the Dead - Averted three times, with three of the principal characters: in the very first episode, Merlyn Temple is murdered by Sheriff Lucas Buck—but we see her as a ghost immediately in the very same episode and she remains around as Caleb's Spirit Advisor for the rest of the series; Caleb himself later dies after an electrocution accident, but is immediately resuscitated by Sheriff Buck's powers; and in the penultimate episode of the series, Buck is seemingly killed and buried (after being stabbed in the third eye), only to see his eyes pop open in the coffin just before the credits roll.
Beauty Equals Goodness - The major subplot of the episode "Eye of the Beholder" plays with and then toes the line of this trope from the heroic perspective of a minor character. In order to obtain custody of his 'son' Caleb, Sheriff Buck tries to discredit Dr. Crower as a potential legal guardian by revealing his pastdifficulties with alcohol. To attest to this, he needs the aid of an orderly at the hospital who worked with Matt before he came to Trinity. When the orderly refuses, Buck sends his wife a magic mirror which swiftly turns her into a temptingseductress. The orderly breaks the mirror... which also horribly disfigures his wife. Freed from the spell, she urges him to refuse Buck's deal and stand by his friend Matt instead, and he professes to love her no matter what she looks like. Despite this and the name of the episode, the orderly inexplicably does Buck's bidding—and even though his testimony is as unbiased as possible, and Buck doesn't get his hands on Caleb due to a delicious Bait and SwitchChekhov's Gun from earlier in the episode, the sheriff still keeps his end of the deal by rewarding the orderly, restoring his wife's beauty so they can leave town in peace and good conscience. Sigh.
Butt Monkey - Poor Ben. Anytime his conscience looks to be getting the better of him, Lucas Buck will subject him to a cruel and elaborate joke to get him to keep his mouth shut.
Chickification - Sadly, this happened to Gail Emory. At the start of the show, while not exactly an Action Girl, she was certainly a female Determinator who, as an Intrepid Reporter, was determined to find out the truth of her parents' deaths and bring their murderer to justice. But as soon as she learned her parents were not the paragons of virtue she thought them to be, her Belated Backstory was dropped and she seemed to flounder about with nothing to do. By the end of the series, she's morphed almost completely into a Distressed Damsel, having to rely on Buck himself for protection, and in her last scene is left in a hospital bed, crying piteously over the baby she's lost—even though she didn't want it in the first place, seeing as it was the son of Satan (as depicted graphically via ultrasound—or maybe not). At least some of this may be due to Executive Meddling in order to pair up the major male and female leads, or a result of the show being Screwed by the Network so that Shaun Cassidy had to wrap everything up far too quickly and nonsensically. But some surely isn't.
Children Are Innocent - Played straight and then disturbingly averted. Buck is proven to be absolutely evil by murderingmercy-killing Merlyn in the first episode, and most of the first half to three-quarters of the series is devoted to protecting the innocent Caleb from the sheriff's vile influence. But then, as Caleb gradually falls deeper and deeper under his father's thrall, starts taking lessons from him, and even absorbs some of his powers, he becomes more disturbingly amoral, wicked, and heartless. By the end of the series, Caleb is practically a carbon copy of The Omen and it is Buck who must actually save Trinity from him. All the more chilling because of how artfully it is done.
Enemy Mine - Buck, Dr. Crower, Gail, and Ben are all forced to work together in the episode "The Beast Within", when Ben's deranged brother takes them all hostage: Dr. Matt's hand is hurt so he has to coach Ben in performing an emergency surgery, while Buck and Gail have to work together to find the lost key to the handcuffs holding them and Caleb prisoner. (The fact this all turns out to be orchestrated by Buck rather subverts the trope.)
And at the very end of the series, Merlyn is forced to go to Dr. Peele, Selena, and Ben for aid in digging up Buck's 'corpse' so that the two of them can then work together to save Gail and stop Caleb's rampage.
Even Evil Has Standards - In the episode "Strong Arm of the Law", Sheriff Buck is shown tormenting, manipulating, and eventually killing or running out of Trinity a foursome of out-of-town criminals. The thing that makes this an example of the trope is that even though Buck is, nominally, a lawman, we never see him upholding the law, merely subverting and twisting it to his own ends. While getting rid of the criminals smacks very much of "This is my turf, only I get to run roughshod over my people," the simple fact is Buck is in the right in this episode, and is shown to have standards, albeit warped ones: while he will haunt, corrupt, blackmail, and drive people insane, he won't come out and be an outright criminal, or allow any real ones to hurt the innocent in Trinity.
Femme Fatale - Selena Coombs. In an interesting inversion, however, her primary sexual usage in the show, aside from being Buck's mistress, is not to turn a good man evil, but to keep a man nominally on the side of evil from defecting to the good.
Good Is Impotent - No matter how hard Dr. Crower and Gail fight for Caleb's rights, and no matter how much Merlyn uses her angelic powers to protect him, Caleb is inexorably drawn into Buck's orbit and everyone seems helpless to prevent it, or even expose Buck's evil. It doesn't help that the sheriff is a Villain with Good Publicity and that both Matt and Gail are hardly immune to mind games or temptation, but even Merlyn is made out to be decidedly weaker than her adversary—and gaining more power to face him almost pushes her too far.
Heel Face Revolving Door - Selena Coombs certainly seems to be riding one of these, or perhaps a seesaw. Aside from the moments when we see the weakening of her evil resolve and the good heart shining through (particularly the episode "Potato Boy"), the last several episodes of the series involve her repeatedly switching sides based on opportunism, a Gambit Roulette, or acting out of character depending on your interpretation. It's hard to tell exactly who she's lying to at any given moment—Buck, Dr. Peele, or Caleb.
One lost episode, however, does offer an aversion of this. In "The Potato Boy", Ms. Coombs invites Caleb to her house, all alone, for 'special tutoring' ...but once there, she ends up confessing her tragic past, crying in Caleb's lap, and taking comfort from him in a purely platonic, if unexpected way, almost doing a Heel Face Turn because of it. Actually a very touching, surprising bit of Character Development. (Which was then promptly forgotten aboutfor the rest of the series.)
If I Cant Have You - Buck is more than a little possessive of the women he beds. So when Selena leaves him for Dr. Peele, Buck gets irritated.
I Have You Now, My Pretty - A disturbing inversion. Not only is there no hero in sight to show up and save Gail from sexual ravishment by Magnificent Bastard Sheriff Buck — since Dr. Crower a) is absolutely clueless about what is developing between them b) has his own problems and c) is never even implied to have any interest in Gail other than as a friend — but Gail actually wants it. (Because, of course, Evil Is Sexy and Evil Feels Good.) The fact she is willing, overcome by her desires, and unable to resist Buck, however, does not stop the scene in question from being depraved: it takes place in a garden replete with unsettling statuary, and the Discretion Shot used throughout is downright surreal, with imagery that switched from What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic? to Mind Screw territory.
In the Blood - One of the main sources of dramatic tension is the question of Caleb's parentage—not just whether he really is Buck's son, but whether he can actively resist becoming corrupt and evil just like his father. And it seems he and Merlyn are right to worry, since the more time he spends with Buck, and the more he learns from him, the more cruel, amoral, callous, and sadistic he becomes. Of course this is likely helped along by his near-death experience, Buck's powers, and being possessed by Buck but the simple fact is after ten or so years of showing no signs of evil, once he learns of his (possible) heritage, Caleb's fall into darkness is somehow inevitable.
Kudzu Plot - We never know in the end whether Buck will ever be stopped, whether Caleb will go evil, whose side Selena is really on, and so forth. But there are a few genuine moments where an element was introduced, then never revisited again, leaving for some major head-scratchings. Examples: Was Sutpen of "Damned If You Don't" really a ghost/spiritual summoning of Buck's, or not? Did Buck drive his girlfriend to suicide, or not? Whatever happened to the fellow Merlyn was romancing when she came back to life? Will Dr. Matt ever get free of the sanitarium? Whatever happened to Selena's father, and will he and she ever reconcile? (This last one is particularly distressing since, thanks to the episode in question never being aired, very few people even know it exists.)
Luke, I Am Your Father - Caleb and Sheriff Buck. Unique in that it is revealed in the pilot of the series, and that while Caleb reacts in disgust and anger at the notion, he never has a Heroic BSOD or otherwise freaks out over the revelation. In fact the more time passes, the less issue he seems to take with it, even welcoming and embracing the relationship by the end of the series. This could be due to being orphaned and having no one else to turn to except an increasingly unstable doctor and a Cool Cousinwho is also being drawn into Buck's orbit, but all thingsconsidered, probably not.
Madness Mantra - Merlyn's Madness Mantra was "Someone's at the door". These were her last words as a sane individual. Someone was at the door, and when he came in, he raped Merlyn's mother in front of her.
This same mantra is then used many times over as a Catch Phrase for the series, but is especially delicious when employed by Merlyn's ghost to haunt the coroner who lies about her cause of death to protect his family from Buck (complete with the disturbing tape-recording that alternates between extremely fast and high-pitched, and extremely slow and garbled), and later to taunt Buck himself.
Magical Negro - Although Mrs. Holt is certainly mysterious, wise, and spiritual enough to be a Magical Negro, the extent of her 'magic spell' to help sway the judge in Caleb's custody hearing is...a nice big bowl of homemade chicken soup. Aside from some hints at African tribalism in her ancestry, a bit of voodoo, and some understanding of how the Afterlife works, she dispenses only common sense advice.
By the end of the show, though, she has indeed been ditched from the plot, and without even really serving a real purpose other than to give Caleb her halfway house to stay in. We can only speculate whether her role was cut due to Executive Meddling, or if it might have been expanded had the show not been Cut Short.
Not What It Looks Like - A particularly horrific subversion of this trope: Sutpen, a convicted killer now released from prison for good behavior, is taken in by Carter as fulfillment of a debt to Buck...after which he begins, quite unsubtly, to put the moves on Carter's daughter. (The popsicle-suckling scene is particularly over-the-top.) After catching Sutpen and his apparently willing daughter practically skinny-dipping together, then giggling and tickling each other under the sheets, Carter forbids them from having any more contact. The very next night, he hears giggling again, grabs his rifle, bursts into his daughter's room, and fires...only to discover it was his daughter and wife playing together, and he had just killed his wife. The fact this is apparently a repeat of history and the reason Sutpen was locked up in the first place, as it's strongly implied Sutpen accidentally killed the wrong man for sleeping with his wife, when it was Carter who had done the deed, only puts the icing on the cake.
Ominous Latin Chanting - Usually when Merlyn is wandering around. Also, O Fortuna was used during the series finale.
Room Full of Crazy - After learning that Sheriff Buck is the Devil Incarnate from none other than his own mother, (except of course she wasn't, instead being a plant set up by Buck) Dr. Crower becomes so obsessed with Buck that he starts acting like a crazed stalker. When Gail, Ben, and Dr. Peele become suspicious of his personality changes and investigate his house, they discover a room straight out of this trope—no rambling writing scrawled on the walls (except Buck's name, over and over), but plenty of photos, newspaper clippings, and an enlarged headshot of the sheriff with a red bullseye marked around it. Despite the predictable cliche quality of the moment, it still managed to be rather chilling.
Not necessarily. The show never really made it clear whether he was (to pick common fan theories) The Devil Himself, a demon, a fallen angel who didn't get all the way down to Hell, a dark aspect of the town itself or any of the above possessing a human host, or just a really evil dude with black magic powers.
Considering the episode "Inhumanitas" where the evil seems to leave Buck and possess Caleb, and Buck himself seems bewildered and perhaps even unaware of what he was doing or how he came to be there, the "possessed by any of the above" theory seems most likely.
Screwed by the Network - The show premiered at 10 PM EST on Friday nights, a fairly good time slot. There was plenty of press, promotions, a lot of hype. The show airs, gets rave reviews from critics and fans alike...and then, for no apparent reason, scheduling issues begin cropping up. Whether the executives in charge at CBS changed and wished to do away with the success of their predecessors (though CBS was transitioning from the disastrous cheapskate Tisch era of the network to Westinghouse ownership; the final year Tisch era had left a Fox lite schedule with post-NFL transition disasters such as an Andrew Dice Clay sitcom and Central Park West with the new owners), didn't understand how good a thing they had, or didn't understand the show at all, all sorts of problems began plaguing the show. It would be preempted; there would be no episode shown, something else randomly stuck on in its place with no explanation; there would be gaps of several weeks in between new episodes, sometimes filled by reruns but usually not; episodes were shown out of order, or never aired at all. Then, without warning, the show was completely yanked from the line-up and vanished for many months. Granted, the show was unusual, not for everyone, and very different from most of CBS's usual fare, but with so many praising it for its daring and disturbing nature, you'd think they'd have gotten a clue. Luckily the creators knew long enough ahead of time that the plug was being pulled, and managed to wrap up the main plot points (well, sort of...). But even these final episodes were withheld for a long time, then suddenly plunked on TV one right after another as a three-hour movie 'event'.
Seeking Sanctuary - Subverted with a vengeance in the episode "Inhumanitas," Caleb believes he will be safe from Buck's evil influence by taking shelter in the church, but the sheriff not only has no issues whatsoever stepping into the sanctuary and relentlessly pursuing his attempts to corrupt the boy, but he is even able to exert Demonic Possession on him, proving how little the forces of holiness can touch him...until Merlyn lays a delicious smackdown on him. Of course, the fact that the parish priest had sold his soul and was attempting to break free of the deal may have had something to do with why Buck was first untouchable, then vulnerable.
Sex Is Evil -This would seem to be the overall 'moral' being raised, unsurprising for a show where the Big Bad is essentially Satan, known for using lust as his primary weapon. Not only does Selena spread her legs at the drop of a hat for Buck (or to corrupt Ben, or Dr. Peele, or...), but Buck himself seduces Gail into a cringing Distressed Damsel, it was his rape of Mrs. Temple that started everything, and even Merlyn's desire for a normal life (complete with a love interest) almost costs an innocent baby its life and leads her to suicide and a return as an avenging angel. Oh, and when Buck corrupts the wife of a hospital orderly with a magic mirror, what's the first thing she does? Turn on the seductive charm.
Shame If Something Happened - The episode "Damned If You Don't" inverts this trope: when Buck comes to collect on a debt, and mentions him having "a lovely daughter...how old is she now, fifteen?" Carter believes (helped along by the sheriff's smarmy turn from Affably Evil to downright pedophilic) that this is a blatant threat to his daughter's life if he turns Buck down—but all the sheriff is doing is innocently offering her a job at the precinct. Of course, when Carter does turn him down and opts for a different means of paying the debt, the daughter, his wife, and his entire livelihood are indeed threatened...with tragic consequences.
Spirit Advisor - Merlyn. While Caleb is not the only person who can see and speak to her, she does appear for the most part only as a ghost who advises her brother on how to stay on the straight and narrow. The others who catch sight of her or even interact with her (apart from her brief stint as a mortal in "Rebirth") are Buck (who even aside from being the Big Bad has a lot more powersat his disposal than the average resident of Trinity) and Ben Healy. In the latter's case, this is only because Merlyn herself chooses to appear to him and haunt his dreams, since he knows the truth about how she died and she's trying to appeal to his conscience so he can break free of Buck's influence. No one else, like Gail (who is her cousin as well as Caleb's) or Mrs. Holt, ever sees her.
Talkative Loon - The people of Trinity struck by Merlyn's plague suffered from this.
Tears of Blood - Merlyn Temple cries these, or at least her body does, during a lovely guilt-inducing vision which haunts the coroner of Trinity—since he was complicit in covering up Sheriff Buck's crime of "mercy killing" her. The accompanying Madness Mantra on the tape recorder, both as an artificially deep Voice of the Legion and a freakily speeded-up version, is the icing on the cake for this very disturbing scene. (You know the villain of a piece must be awful if this is the sort of thing the good guys do regularly to combat his plots.)
Town with a Dark Secret - Subversion: Trinity, SC, is a town whose dark secret is that its sheriff is the Devil Incarnate. But no one knows this fact at all (except Merlyn, it seems), while only the few who run afoul of Buck's wrath, dare to cross him, or refuse to obey him ever even discover what a Magnificent Bastard he truly is. On the other hand, there are quite a lot of people in town keeping their own secrets: Dr. Crower, Gail, the coroner, the priest, Ben, Selena...
Villain with Good Publicity - Sheriff Lucas Buck. Men tip their hats and women hand him flowers, little old men and women thank him for the charity work that has enabled them to afford their medicines, children smile and wave, and so on. No one in Trinity could possibly believe good ol' boy Buck could have a mean bone in his body.
Your Princess Is In Another Castle - Happened on quite a number of occasions. The two most memorable would have to be "Resurrector", when after a morality tale of a radio talk-show host, his seemingly murdered wife, and Buck in one of his most despicable acts of Magnificent Bastardry, the interspersed attempts of Caleb to bring Merlyn's spirit back to him results in decidedly mixedresults; and "The Buck Stops Here", where after the sheriff is killed and Caleb becomes a regular little Damien, nearly killing Gail and bringing the whole town, even Selena, under his thrall, we are treated to the last shot of Buck's eyes opening in his grave.