'American Gothic': How 'Boston Legal,' 'Jane the Virgin' Influenced CBS' Murder Mystery Drama

"It’s almost like a giant game of Clue," Corinne Brinkerhoff tells THR about CBS' new murder mystery series.
Christos Kalohoridis/CBS

Get ready for plenty of twists and turns on CBS’ new summer series American Gothic. The freshman drama centers around a prominent Boston family reeling in the wake of the chilling discovery that someone in their midst is linked to an infamous string of murders and is more than meets the eye, according to executive producer and writer Corinne Brinkerhoff.

The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Brinkerhoff about the series, where she dished on everything from creating a modern-day who-done-it to how her previous work on shows like Jane the Virgin and The Good Wife helped influence the story of American Gothic.

You’ve had your hand in several successful TV shows. Can you talk a little bit about your career trajectory from starting on Boston Legal to now creating American Gothic?

I started actually as an unpaid intern for David E. Kelley Productions straight out of grad school. Then I wrote a spec script of Boston Legal once I had been there for a little while. It ended up getting produced and then I was on the staff of that show for the rest of the run. It was fantastic! I loved it! From there I went to The Good Wife for three seasons and Elementary for a year … [I] did Reckless for CBS and a pilot and then I was on Jane the Virgin for the first season or so when I wrote American Gothic. American Gothic got picked up after I sold No Tomorrow to The CW. I ended up getting a co-writer so we could write that while I was starting in the writer’s room on Gothic. It’s been a wild year, but a wonderful one!

What are some of the lessons you learned from working on those previous shows that helped influence Gothic?

From Boston Legal and from David E. Kelley, who has always been my favorite TV writer of all time to get to work for him was a true privilege – he’s so character based and so adept with dialogue and that was … he always rewrites and polishes and makes it better, even though his first draft is always so far above most people’s final draft. That was a major piece of what I learned from him. Also using the platform of TV to take chances to say something that matters to you. We have a character that’s running for mayor of Boston, so there are opportunities within her speeches to talk about things that matter to me on a political level or just on a societal level. I couldn’t even begin to think of everything I learned from that job.

The Good Wife was a place where I really learned to build story collaboratively and that was invaluable instruction. We spent a lot of time in the writer’s room. It was a fantastic experience. Jane has such an interesting tone and you can go between heavy drama and even murder and then just wonderful comedy. It’s not that evident in the first episode, but there is quite a heavy thread of dark comedy in the show [American Gothic] and that’s what distinguishes it tonally. [Executive producer] Jennie [Snyder Urman] is the first solo female showrunner that I ever worked for and that was incredibly valuable. Every show I’ve worked on has given me major pieces of help to do this one.

In addition to American Gothic, as you mentioned you have the post-apocalyptic comedy No Tomorrow premiering on The CW in the fall. How did you juggle the darkness of American Gothic with the comedy of No Tomorrow?

It was strange. They are wildly different tones, but there is an element of darkness in No Tomorrow and there is an element of comedy in American Gothic. It was really nice to actually do them at the same time because you could kind of palate-cleanse one with the other. It was actually less stressful than I would have thought because one helped the other. It was a little jarring sometimes to go from being fully embroiled in the darkness to pure joyfulness and silliness in the other.

What can viewers expect from American Gothic? Is it a who-done-it?

I think it is a who-done-it. If you think you know, you’re not right. It’s going to keep twisting. We are certainly telling the audience something’s up. Somebody knows something and there’s certainly secrets in the family, but it’s going to be a ride to find out what exactly went down and who knows what and what still may be going down in the present day, so it’s not over yet. We think of it like a summer novel with 13 chapters. We are telling one big story that hopefully has a satisfying end. That’s the fun of it. It’s almost like a giant game of Clue.

Did any real murder cases influence the story of American Gothic?

I didn’t want to spend time in the gruesome details of anyone’s crimes. I wanted to look at what happens to a family in the wake of this. I looked at real life cases of families who seemed to be fully functional. … I think we’ve all seen that standard serial killer type who’s a loner and an outcast. It was always more haunting and compelling to me to think about what if that person was at the dinner table with you? We did a lot of research on real life families who have been through this. What the ramifications were and all the fear of somehow being unknowingly complicit? Should I have known? Did I subconsciously know something? We did a lot of research on people who had been through that to try and play it realistically.

American Gothic premieres June 22 at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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