Watching Rupert Graves seem to struggle a bit with an American accent and even seem to fit into an American ensemble felt strange. He never really embodied this role, and maybe it’s just my brain used to his Englishness. Or maybe, The Family suffered from a complete lack of cohesion that devolved into decentralized and sloppy storytelling over the course of its one and only season.
American Gothic and The Family are remarkably similar in many ways – they have a similar tone. American Gothic does not so much rely on the use of flashback, but the story draws from past events to build suspense in the present (unlike The Family’s more frequent and ham-handed attempts to use flashbacks). We have a member of the main family running for public office with a lot at stake if the family’s secrets are unveiled (in AG, one of the adult siblings is running for mayor of Boston; in The Family, the mother runs for governor of Maine). We have a law enforcement tie-in (one of the siblings in the main family in AG is married to a detective; in The Family, detectives investigate the disappearance of the main family’s young son, and one detective has an affair with the aforementioned misplaced Graves). We have the screw-up drug addict sibling in both stories; the Justin Chatwin character in AG better embodies the realities of addiction, much more convincingly than the brother (whom I can never see as anyone other than Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights) in The Family. We get cops in AG who feel more like real cops/detectives rather than some kind of half-sketched out idea of cops (as we got in The Family). We get with AG a sense that the story knows its plot points and knows where it plans to go (unlike The Family, where the only compelling thing was Andrew McCarthy playing well against type). We get in AG a mystery that we care about finding a solution to (unlike The Family, which started strong with its first episode or two but fizzled out quickly. I am caught up to the most current American Gothic, and I am still hooked).
We have a mystery at the core of both stories and a thread of ruthlessness that runs through both in the protective siblings and family members who safeguard their secrets at all costs.
Although both were stacked with what should have been really all-star casts, The Family’s cast never really felt much like a family (the cast really did not gel for me. On paper, it looks great – acclaimed, good actors; chemistry though is a strange and rare thing that cannot be created just by having a great cast list). Despite – or perhaps because of – the dysfunction in American Gothic, you do get the idea that these people could be family. I don’t have feelings one way or the other about Virginia Madsen (for the most part), but I am thrilled to see Juliet Rylance, Justin Chatwin and Antony Starr (all of whom were co-stars in some of my favorites: The Knick, Shameless and Banshee, respectively; if you have Banshee withdrawals, Starr’s character here is a lot like Lucas Hood – mysterious, shady, reticent, volatile and with lots of secrets).
American Gothic could easily stray into the terrible territory of the now-departed soap/drama Revenge, which shared some of the same themes (but often handled them so clumsily and squandered all the suspense and goodwill built in season one, letting it trickle away in several misdirected, increasingly boring seasons). But American Gothic retains all the things that excited people about Revenge when it first began. (Virginia Madsen somehow pulls off the “trailer trash-turned-wealthy family matriarch” more effectively and believably than Madeleine Stowe ever did.)
I could be prematurely declaring success for American Gothic – but for now, I’ll cautiously say that it is definitely a better contender than The Family in terms of holding interest but… can it outlast something like Revenge and not degenerate into heightening levels nonsensical soapy dramatics. I realize that all shows of this nature rely on some soapy dramatics, and that’s not what I mean. Some shows manage to pull this off without appearing to be completely stupid and desperate. It remains to be seen whether American Gothic will be one of these.