Friday, November 18, 2005

CULT TV FRIDAY FLASHBACK # 16: American Gothic: "Strong Arm of the Law"

Nobody beats Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) at his own game. Nobody. And that's the message of "Strong Arm of the Law," an early episode from the 1995 CBS one-season wonder and cult series, American Gothic.

Created by Shaun (Invasion) Cassidy, and produced by Sam Raimi and Renaissance Pictures, this ten-year old programs remains one of the finest horror serials ever to air on American prime-time television. And despite some early CG/video special effects that today appear a bit cheesy, it looks better than ever on DVD.

American Gothic is the story of a youngster of questionable lineage, named Caleb Temple (the unbelievably good Lucas Black). In the first episode, little Caleb sees his father go blood simple, and his sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson) murdered by the nefarious sheriff of Trinity, South Carolina...the nefarious Lucas Buck. Turns out that Lucas is Caleb's biological father and is just about ready to take custody of the boy. Only problem is that Lucas Buck may just be the devil...

But before Sheriff Buck can seduce Caleb to the dark side, he must contend with two most unwelcome "do-gooders" in Trinity: Gail Emory (Paige Turco) and a yankee upstart, Dr. Matt Crower (Jack Weber). They both realize Buck's up to no good, and take steps to protect Caleb at the same time they deal with their own personal demons. Gail's parents, you see, died in Trinity twenty years earlier...and Lucas Buck just happened to be the one to discover their bodies. And Matt is still recovering from a drunk driving incident in which his wife and daughter were killed.

The New York Times called American Gothic "small town America as an eerie place somewhere between Mayberry RFD and Twin Peaks." Writing in Rolling Stone, critic David Wild noted that "American Gothic...benefits from a fine, frightening cast, particularly Gary Cole, who plays Lucas Buck...Indeed, the players throw themselves into these self-consciously bizarre proceeding as if the show were the inspired work of collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Stephen King..."

American Gothic is a series that works so well, I believe, because it lives up to the two parts of its interesting title. Thus it serves as a passage from mundane reality to a dark region governed by a supernatural, evil being. It is both uniquely American and uniquely Gothic. Discuss...

Let's examine that belief in terms of characters first. Matt Crower leaves Boston a shattered man, only to move to beautiful Trinity, where he discovers that Lucas Buck - a figure of strange abilities and allegiances - influences and rules the town with dark powers. As in Bram Stoker's Dracula, evil predominates here and Lucas Buck, like the count, is at the center of the action. As portrayed by Cole, Buck is alluring and repulsive at the same time; capable of terrific evil at the same time he is charming. This is the essential yin/yang of any Gothic romantic villain. He must be beautiful and monstrous at the same time.

Gail Emory serves as the Gothic heroine here. She explores dark family secrets, digging deep into the mysteries of her own lineage. As Buck says of her quest (in the episode "Ring of Fire,"): "The Secret History of the South is hidden in blood...history, family, genealogy." What could be more Gothic than this belief that the past infects the presents, creating a kind of "secret history" in which the trials and grief of the dead (like Merlyn) cast a pall over the living?

In terms of setting, American Gothic also is from the Gothic school. It features a world where death and decay are always close at hand. Rotting corpses abound in episodes such as "Rebirth" and Meet the Beetles" and symbols of mortality and rot feature prominently in episodes such as "A Tree Grows in Trinity," "The Plague Sower" and "To Hell and Back." In "Resurrector," Caleb throws a "going-away party" for the dead, establishing that Trinity is a town where the buried past lives and breathes, and where the dead could very well be visitors at your boarding house (as the Boston Strangler turns out to be in "Strangler." )

But lastly, American Gothic has located and exploited a successful U.S. metaphor for the Gothic period in literature. Originally, the late 18th century and early 19th were the heyday of the Gothic-style romance, and the movement featured the crumbling castles and ruins of Europe. American Gothic transplants this exotic locale to the post-Civil War American South, a world where farms and Southern plantations are essentially "the crumbling castles" of a different culture. Rusting bridges (in "Rebirth"), forgotten bungalows (in "Ring of Fire"), and even the count's castle (Buck's home) echo decaying Gothic settings of old. In particular, Buck's estate is reveled to be a vast, cold place with a seemingly endless, narrow staircase stretching up and up, out of sight. Shadows line the walls, and the house's interior is filmed from off-kilter angles to suggest the corruption of its owner. The domicile is thus the modern-day equivalent of the House of Seven Gables, or the like.

"America" is half the title in American Gothic. And so this horror series deals specifically with us. It has transplanted the Gothic story of alluring evil to the New World, and manages to explore several American notions and truisms. The concept that "nothin' is for free" is nowhere better exemplified than in Buck's Trinity, where a favor given always costs a favor in return. The transient nature of contemporary American living, the fact that folks move easily and freely from city to city, is exemplified by the heroes of American Gothic: Crower is a Yank; Gail grew up in Charleston. But the American lifestyle, coupled with fate ("there's no such thing as free will," Buck reminds us) brings them both to Trinity and a rendezvous with the evil that has already touched their lives (through the death of loved ones).

I'm choosing the episode "Strong Arm of the Law" for this specific flashback, not because it is the best episode of the entire American Gothic run, but because this story, which aired November 3, 1995, reveals Sheriff Buck at his most powerful and magnetic. The storyline (by Michael R. Perry and Stephen Gaghan) involves a gang of criminal "Northerners" who arrive in Trinity and immediately begin shaking down the local business owners, collecting money for a bogus charity, the Sheriff's Retirement Home. Trinity's citizenry immediately suspects that Buck is pulling the strings behind this illegal activity, but he isn't. And he doesn't like being falsely accused...or being beaten at his own game. So Buck exercises the most evil and deadly form of retribution imaginable against these carpetbaggers. He sees that the claustrophobic one in the gang gets buried alive with a corpse. He bludgeons another with a shovel. And finally, he takes the two ring leaders (played by Matt Craven and Richard Edson) and arranges a nice little car accident for them. They survive the wreck, but Buck hand-cuffs them together in their overturned car and then puts a lit flare in their gas tank. But Buck doesn't want it said he didn't give them a chance. He provides them a switchblade so the Yankees can cut through their wrists to freedom...

"Strong Arm of the Law" perfectly captures the dual nature of Sheriff Buck. His vengeance against the carpetbaggers (all murderers and thieves...) is absolutely evil, and certainly unlawful. And yet, there is an aspect of gleeful wish-fulfillment involved in his actions. He dispatches the killers with such grace and charm (and the occasional bon mot...) that one can't help but be attracted to this gentleman devil. In the course of the episode, he rescues Gail Emory from rape, and cleans up the town, so there's even a certain amount of heroism involved in Buck's feats. Yet his motives are selfish (clearing his own name), and his methods are positively draconian. This episode captures these Gothic qualities of Buck better than just about any other in the series, I think.

Gary Cole's affable and charming performance as the evil Sheriff Buck remains one of television's most underrated gems. "You make the choice that the material is laying out the premise and the information that, yes, this guy is in fact an arm of evil and can be destructive," Cole told me in an interview for my book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. "Therefore, you get out of the way and don't play that at all. You let the writing take care of that. If you try to play the character trying to be dark and menacing to people, it's not as interesting...and not as menacing. It's much more disturbing to see someone smiling and patting people on the back, knowing that he can destroy them at any moment with a smile on his face."

We see a lot of that trademark Sheriff Buck "smile" in "Strong Arm of the Law," which aired just about ten years ago this month. It's a terrific example of American Gothic at its most clever, most fiendish and - dare I say it? - most Gothic. And that's why I chose it for this sixteenth cult-tv Friday flashback. Trinity's a great place to visit...but I wouldn't want to live there.


  1. An interesting review of the episode. I appreciated the quote from Cole on how he decided how to play Buck in the series. An incredibly talented actor, Cole was excellent and I mourned the cancellation of the series which I recognized upon first viewing as adult, fascinating and incredibly well acted/produced. Naturally, it couldn't last long on American network television.

    Thankfully, I now own on DVD The Complete American Gothic. How I wish it could have lasted longer.

  2. Anonymous10:11 AM

    I just discovered American Gothic towards the end of its run on the Chiller Channel and how sorry I am I did know about the series to watch it when it first aired. It was way ahead of its time! I cannot think of the last time tv viewing included so compelling and riveting a character as Lucas Buck in recent memory...Wow!

    I just have two questions:

    In a world where realty tv is king, how did we go from the artistry of American Gothic to the flat out crass and embarrassing viewing of reality television?

    Second, is there ever a chance of the series being rekindled?

    I suppose the trend of television must be signaling the "end times"...Judiran

  3. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Great. So Buck goea all Mad Max on the carpetbaggers -- how original.