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American Gothic: The Complete Series

Shaun Cassidy and Sam Raimi's Southern-fried, supernatural cult classic finally comes to DVD. It's good news for long-suffering fans, and a testament to the staying power of this genre-bending tale that even a disappointing technical presentation can't mar the show's charms. Trinity, South Carolina is the kind of quiet, picturesque little town that inspired paintings in Norman Rockwell and novels in Faulkner. Folks know their neighbors by first name, go to church on Sunday, and value family just about above all else. It's the kind of town where a fella could make a life for himself, far from the hustle-bustle of city life. Provided, of course, that he can follow the rules. Because if he can't, odds are good he'll be getting a visit from Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Some folk would tell you Buck's an evil man, but he prefers to think of himself as a devoted peacekeeper with a liberal interpretation of that whole "protect and serve" clause. He'll do whatever it takes to protect Trinity, whether through badge, bullet, or black magic…so long as it aligns with his own agenda. And that agenda gets spun clean off its axis one stormy night when a young girl named Merlyn Temple (Sarah Paulson) is nearly murdered by her drunken father. The sheriff shows up in just the nick of time and – well, that'd be telling. Suffice to say, the night's aftermath leaves the fate of Merlyn's little brother, Caleb (the ironically named Lucas Black), up in the air…and his fate could be more important than anyone but the sheriff could ever imagine.

When "American Gothic" premiered in 1995, it had quite a pedigree backing it up. Sam Raimi was exec producing, overseeing creator and showrunner (and former Hardy Boy) Shaun Cassidy. The mere presence of Raimi almost always brings with it the eventual appearance of either brother Ted or long-time friend and punching bag Bruce Campbell, and "Gothic" was no exception: they both put in appearances before the lone season was done. The show's writing staff included a cast of characters who would go on to put mobsters through therapy (Mitchell Burgess on "The Sopranos"), drop astronauts through wormholes (David Kemper on "Farscape"), and even win an Oscar (Stephen Gaghan for Traffic). Add to that the presence of Gary Cole (Office Space, "Crusade") as one of the most fiendishly entertaining villains ever, and a twisting storyline that mixed elements equal parts dark humor, supernatural thrills, and Southern charm, and "American Gothic" had all the makings of a hit.

If only it had found an audience.

"Gothic" shares obvious stylistic and thematic parallels with fellow cult classic "Twin Peaks"—strange, possibly supernatural goings on in small-town America—but "Gothic" is actually best compared to a more recent show: last year's midseason Fox flop, "Point Pleasant". While "Pleasant" was nowhere near as good a show as "Gothic", both shows follow the struggle for a single, powerful soul (in "Pleasant"'s case, devil-daughter Christina; in "Gothic"'s, possible Buck-offspring Caleb Temple) who has the potential to be swayed to the side of either darkness or light. Both shows see the townsfolk seduced, tempted, and often destroyed by their own weaknesses (Cole's Buck does the tempting in "Gothic", whereas "Pleasant" offered up the considerably less potent "Melrose Place" survivor Grant Show). The key difference here is that, with "Pleasant", Grant Show's morally gray antics entertain, but (with the exception of the always welcome Dina Meyer as a fellow baddie) he's the only character in the entire town that isn't eye-gouging-ly dull. The central character, upon whose shoulders is suspended the fate of the world, has all the depth and charm of a 2' x 4'. We actually wish she would turn to the dark side, just so the world might come to an end, and with it our suffering. Contrast that with Caleb Temple: a conflicted character, written consistent with his young age, who through his blood may be inheriting terrible powers but doesn't yet have the maturity to understand them or to use them responsibly. Even though he's only a child, Caleb is portrayed as a layered, complicated human being who sometimes does the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, and the rest of the characters are the same. In Trinity, even the white picket fences come in shades of gray.

In "Gothic", though Cole's gleefully malevolent portrayal of Sheriff Buck (complete with a pitch-perfect "Andy Griffith" joke in the pilot) is by far the star attraction, it is by no means the only one. Over the course of 22 episodes, Sheriff Buck's larger plans for Caleb slowly unspool, even as characters such as Dr. Matt Crower (Jake Weber) and Caleb's cousin Gail (Paige Turco) try to foil those plans. Grand forces of light and dark clash; Bruce Campbell has a close encounter with a box full of bugs; and Sheriff Buck does terrible, horrible, Schadenfreudian things to all those who would trouble his quaint little town. That, to tweak a favorite phrase of "Twin Peaks'" Special Agent Dale Cooper, is a damn fine cup of television.

It says quite a bit that, 15 and 11 years, respectively, after "Twin Peaks" and "American Gothic" went off the air, they are still the two bars by which I measure any show of this type. But while "Peaks" soared in its first season, stumbled in its second, and left us fans with an unresolved cliffhanger ending that still sets my teeth to grinding, "Gothic"'s one-season run features plenty of strong moments and no real stinkers. Couple that with a finale that provides enough closure to be satisfying while still inspiring wistful thoughts of "what if…" and "Gothic" works remarkably well as a 22-episode limited series. And thanks to the magic of DVD, Savior of That Which Once Was Lost, now the show's brief but bountiful run can be enjoyed by all you unfortunate folks who didn't give it a look-see the first time around.

Just remember, if Sheriff Buck asks you what color his gun is, the answer is "gray." As with seemingly every Universal TV-on-DVD release of late, the "Gothic" set comes on dual-sided disks, and largely barren of extras. The box touts "15 Deleted and Extended Scenes!", but these prove to be no more exciting than usual. The rule holds that, in most cases, deleted scenes were deleted for a reason, and while a few of the selected offerings merit a watch, don't expect your understanding of the show to be radically altered. More likely you'll find yourself checking your watch and muttering, "Jesus, how long does this scene go on?"

The real attractions are unheralded on the slipcover: a pilot commentary by creator Shaun Cassidy and producer David Eick, and the inclusion of four episodes that didn't air during the show's original run (though they have since turned up on the Sci-Fi Channel). The commentary is funny and interesting, two qualities not always guaranteed when it comes to commentaries (look no further than Paul Verhoven and Arnold Schwarzenneger's track on Total Recall), and it's enough to make you wish Universal had ponied up a few more tracks with other cast or crew (or, hell, even Cassidy and Eick again).

One enormous, glaring problem with this set is the order of the episodes. They are included in original CBS airing order (with the unaired four stuck on the last disk after the finale). The problem with that is that the airing order makes no damn sense at all. I was lucky enough to know going in that the show's continuity would be shot all to hell if watched as offered (maybe that had something to with it never finding an audience—thanks, CBS), so I hunted down what is supposedly Shaun Cassidy's "official, approved viewing order". I have no idea if this order came straight from the Hardy Boy's mouth or not, but the episodes work and flow well in this order, and they're a horrible, jumbled mess if watched in the order in which they're placed on the disks. There's frankly no excuse for these episodes not to have been placed onto the disks in a Cassidy-approved order, and I can't imagine how many casual renters of this set will be all befuddled if they try to watch it in the order off the box. In the mean time, you can find the order I used here.

It should also be noted that, yet again, I had problems with episodes freezing, stuttering, or skipping on these dual-sided Universal disks. It only happened on one episode, so it wasn't as egregious as in previous cases, but it still happened, and it's still incredibly annoying. Nor am I the only one. It's great that Universal is putting out fan-favorite shows such as "Gothic", but that doesn't excuse sub par product.

Meanwhile, if you dig "America Gothic", Shaun Cassidy is currently delving through somewhat similar territory with "Invasion", currently airing on ABC.