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 one 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). Sheriff Buck rules over his little kingdom with morbid humor and playfulness, setting up moral pitfalls and dilemmas for the town's residents, and dispensing his own brand of justice, vengeance, or just plain meanness—which often involves ruin, insanity, dismemberment, or death.
Opposing Buck is young Caleb Temple (Lucas Black), an orphan who talks regularly to his dead sister Merlyn and 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?
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 American Gothic (2016), which shares the same title but is otherwise quite dissimilar.
This series provides examples of:
- Achilles' Heel: Buck's vulnerability is his third eye. If stabbed there, he could be killed.
- American Title: Takes its title from the famous Grant Wood painting, and deals with gothic goings-on in a seemingly idyllic small American town.
- Affably Evil: Buck didn't get a sterling reputation in Trinity for nothing.
- Arc Words / Catch-Phrase: "Someone's at the door."
- Back from the Dead: Averted three times, with three of the principal characters.
- In the very first episode, Merlyn is murdered by 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 Buck.
- In the penultimate episode of the series, Buck is seemingly killed and buried (after being stabbed in his third eye), only for his eyes to pop open in the coffin just before the credits roll.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: The major subplot of "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, Buck tries to discredit Dr. Crower as a potential legal guardian by revealing his past difficulties 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 tempting seductress. 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-Switch Chekhov'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, Buck will subject him to a cruel and elaborate joke to get him to keep his mouth shut.
- Chickification: Happens 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 the writers lost her sense of purpose, resulting in wimpy and disappointing characterization. The development of her relationship with Buck, while interesting in concept, is written so sloppily that she seems much weaker compared to her personality at the beginning of the series.
- Children Are Innocent: Played straight and then disturbingly averted. Buck is proven to be absolutely evil by mercy-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 Damien Thorn and it is Buck who must actually save Trinity from him. All the more chilling because of how artfully it is done.
- Cool Big Sis: Or, in this case, cousin.
- Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Buck's girlfriend falls victim to a mysterious illness and is being treated by the local doctor, one of the few people not intimidated by him.Buck: You better cure her or I'll...Doctor: Or you'll what?Buck: (threateningly) I'll think of something.
- Cut Short: In the words of series creator Shaun Cassidy, "we saw the ending coming soon enough to wrap the story up," but the last episode left a lot of unanswered questions.
- A Day in the Limelight: "The Beast Within" focuses on Ben and gives him a chance to be much more heroic than usual. Subverted since Lucas set the whole thing up to manipulate him.
- Dead Person Conversation: Caleb and his dead sister, Merlyn.
- Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Crower.
- Deal with the Devil: Quite literally. There are far too many of these to list, but one of the earliest and most representative is Carter's deal with Buck in "Damned If You Don't."
- Dream Intro: Subverted in the pilot. After the Action Prologue, Gail has a Catapult Nightmare and we are to assume the opening sequence was a bad dream of hers. But then we see that the story is on TV.
- Driven to Suicide: One of the many, many times that Buck exercises his Manipulative Bastard license.
- Enemy Mine: Buck, Dr. Crower, Gail, and Ben are all forced to work together in "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. (he 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 "Strong Arm of the Law," 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.
- Executive Meddling: See below.
- 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 Colors, Evil Colors: Spirit Advisor Merlyn is always depicted dressed in white, while Buck (the Devil Incarnate) is quite often dressed in black. What Do You Mean It's Not Symbolic?
- 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.
- HeelFace 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.
- High-HeelFace Turn: Played with and then spectacularly avoided with Billy and Selena.
- Honey Trap: In the pilot, the Sheriff sends Selena to his deputy to find out what he knows.
- Hot for Student: Played with subtextually. Although this trope is never used overtly, it is a very obvious subtext to the dynamic between Selena and Caleb. After all, supposedly sweet, seemingly wholesome Selena is in fact a Femme Fatale, Hot Librarian, and Evil Teacher all rolled into one.
- A good example of how the series plays with this trope is in "The Potato Boy." This episode features a scene where Selena, wearing a tight dress, acts obviously seductive to Caleb while meeting the boy alone at her house, and Buck even makes a wry comment on their relationship. However, the same episode adds depth by showing her form a more platonic bond with Caleb when [[spoiler:she ends up confessing her tragic past, crying in Caleb's lap, and finding sincere emotional support of a wholesome kind in Caleb. As was typical in this series, however, this surprising and touching bit of Character Development was then promptly forgotten about for the rest of the series.
- If I Can't 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 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 Faux Symbolism 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.
- Karma Houdini: Unsurprisingly, Sheriff Buck is one for the entire run of the series. Among the most notable things he gets away with are: killing Merlyn in the very first episode and blackmailing his failed Bastard Understudy Ben Healy to keep quiet about it; imprisoning, torturing, and eventually causing the death by neglect of an out-of-town reporter (complete with removing from his belongings the evidence that might convict Buck of various crimes, all while Dr. Matt and Gail look on helplessly); tormenting Dr. Matt about his alcoholism, nearly getting him expelled at the hospital due to his tragic past, and eventually setting him up to look like an insane vigilante so he could be locked up in a mental ward; manipulating Gage Temple into killing Gail's parents (from which he escapes only by revealing to her how awful her parents really were); and summoning the spirit of the Boston Strangler to kill Merlyn (only to have him go after Gail as well). He even seems to win at the end of the series. This would be enough to constitute a Downer Ending and a reason to wash your hands of the show, if not for the suitably vague ending, which implies the victory might not be all it seems, and how deliciously this bastard pulls most of this off.
- 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-scratching. 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.)
- Life-or-Limb Decision: Performed by, who else? Buck.
- Light Is Not Good: Merlyn's pro-active, badass attack on Buck in the church swiftly turns her down the path of the Well-Intentioned Extremist when she creates a plague to punish the people of Trinity for not stopping or getting rid of the sheriff.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Caleb and 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 Cousin who is also being drawn into Buck's orbit, but all things considered, probably not.
- Madness Mantra:
- Merlyn's 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 this, 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.
** In one episode, her ineffectiveness in protecting Caleb from evil is lampshaded when Buck, after being thwarted by her interference, apparently makes her verge on choking to death. Presumably he does not kill her because she's that small a blip on his radar (or such a petty thing would be beneath him). And the advice she gives Caleb regarding Merlyn's spirit being laid to rest is quite sound, namely "don't mess with the dead." Too bad Caleb doesn't listen, and in trying to help her move on instead brings her back...with unfortunate results.
* Neck Snap: How Lucas kills Merlyn.
- Not So Different: In "The Plague Sower," having gone too far in her desire for vengeance and justice, Merlyn uses her angelic powers to curse Trinity with an almost Biblical plague, only relenting when she is made to see how her either-or mentality and harsh, murderous methods make her no better than Buck.
- 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 un-subtly, 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.
- Outside-Genre Foe: The ghost of the Boston Strangler suddenly appears with no warning in one episode.
- Pineal Weirdness: Lucas mentions the supposed importance of the pineal gland/third eye. Yancy then stabs him in the area in an attempt to kill him.
- Plucky Girl: Gail, for the most part.
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Starting in the pilot, and continuing on to about the twelfth episode, Gail proves to possess some form of this ability, since she continually relives or witnesses the fire which claimed the lives of her parents, even though she wasn't actually there to see the tragedy the first time. Once Buck has revealed to her the truth about how and why her parents died and she realizes they weren't as wonderful as she thought they were, this ability seems to disappear...which considering the trouble she gets into later, is rather unfortunate.
- Psychic Powers: Although Buck, Caleb, and Merlyn are all shown to have varying examples of such powers (the latter never hinted at in life but justified by her new position), in the very first episode, Gail is also implied to have some form of a Psychic Link with her cousin. After he has vanished from the hospital to answer his sister's summons to their old house, Gail somehow "feels" a connection to him, even seems to indulge in a bit of Psychometry when she touches the door, and then instantly "knows" where Caleb has gone. Even the writers, when speaking in the commentary, noted that they didn't really know how she did it, that it was only introduced as a way to get all the characters together for the climax, and the ability is never shown again.
- Put on a Bus: Dr. Crower
- Rape as Drama: Meryln's traumatized state was caused by watching Buck rape her mother. In case we didn't already know that Buck was evil.
- Room Full of Crazy: After learning that 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.
- Satan: Sheriff Lucas Buck. 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.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: One of Buck's methods to control the area.
- Seeking Sanctuary: Subverted with a vengeance in "Inhumanitas," where 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, 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.
- Shout-Out: The Life-or-Limb Decision scene at the end of "The Strong Arm of the Law" is very similar to the iconic one at the end of the original Mad Max.
- Sleeping Dummy: In the pilot, Caleb builds one at the hospital to fool Buck.
- 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 powers at 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.
- Southern Gothic: For the most part, the show doesn't indulge in this trope, since Trinity is a very clean, neat, well-taken-care-of town, but a number of its underpinnings do appear in individual episodes ("Damned If You Don't," "The Potato Boy," "Inhumanitas," "The Plague Sower," and especially the pilot) and, of course, the supernatural figures prominently throughout the series. Also, a number of images from the opening credits evoked this.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: When Dr. Crower is Put on a Bus, the series introduces Dr. Peele, who, just like Crower, is new in town and working at the local hospital, and Peele takes over Crower's role as Buck's nemesis. Although Crower and Peele have different personalities (and Peele, unlike Crower, adds some soap opera-style romance drama with Selena), their basic role in the story is blatantly the same.
- 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 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 sped-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.)
- Teen Idol: A behind-the-scenes variant. The show's creator and main writer was Shaun Cassidy. Yes, THAT Shaun Cassidy.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Trinity is a town whose dark secret is that its sheriff is the Devil Incarnate. It's a relatively well-kept secret since Buck is a Villain with Good Publicity. Slightly subverted in that some of the wiser locals simply see Buck manipulative and cruel bastard and think this is the secret. 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 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. Most of the locals find it hard to believe good ol' boy Buck could have a mean bone in his body.
- Virginity Makes You Stupid: Inverted with Gail. At the start of the show, she is an Action Girl, an Intrepid Reporter, a Determinator, a Mama Bear, and a Cool Big Sis. But because she's Forbidden Fruit, Sheriff Buck pursues her relentlessly. And the minute he succeeds in bedding her, all of her previous characterization goes out the window and she becomes a wimpy, bland and fairly useless character. This development is at least rationalized, in that Buck, being an incarnate force of evil, is implied to have taken her goodness out of her as well through having sex with her.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist:
- After Merlyn kills her new body to save the soul of a baby and is sent briefly to Hell, Caleb resurrects her spirit. Apparently, this brush with darkness changed her usually angelic personality into one that was vengeful, ruthless, and downright disturbing. Completely aside from the horror (or Narm) when she briefly speaks with a deep, demonic voice, she declares war on Buck right in the middle of a church. And when Buck possesses Caleb and dares her to kill her own brother, she goes completely too far, deciding that since everyone in the town is either aiding Buck or looking the other way, they are all evil too...so she sends a plague to slaughter the town. And all of this while still wearing white!
- Dr. Crower ends up becoming one of these in "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday," and this is the ostensible justification for Buck sending him out of town to the loony bin. On the one hand, plastering the walls of your room with newspaper clippings, death threats, photos, and a big red gun-sight target would definitely suggest someone is a danger to himself and others. On the other hand, considering Buck is the Devil Incarnate, being an extremist, well-intentioned or not, may be the only way to get rid of him. Which, since the whole thing was orchestrated by Buck anyway to get rid of who he thought was his biggest obstacle to claiming Caleb, really underscores how, in Trinity, Good Is Impotent.
- 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, the interspersed attempts of Caleb to bring Merlyn's spirit back to him results in decidedly mixed results; 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.