'American Gothic': TV Review

American Gothic Cam Hawthorne Megan Ketch Still H 2016
Christos Kalohoridis/CBS
So, so bad.

This ludicrous new CBS summer series proves it's better to be outside enjoying the sun than inside watching this nonsense.

Given that CBS' new summer series American Gothic is supposed to be a creepy drama about a family that starts to freak out over which member is a notorious serial killer, I probably wasn't supposed to laugh.

But it was hard not to.

That's pretty much all you need to know about a show where almost everybody is so deadpan that it looks like sedatives might have been placed in bowls on the craft services table or, more likely, that they realized while speaking their lines that it was all going sideways in a hurry.

There is one more thing you do need to know before racing over to record this clunker in the hope that you'll spend a bunch of nights laughing at its ludicrousness: It's not that kind of awful. This is not a show to watch hoping you'll laugh along at how bad it is. If you've got enough free hours for that kind of entertainment, looking longer at American Gothic is not advised.

Created, executive produced and written by Corinne Brinkerhoff (whose better credits include Jane the Virgin, The Good Wife and Elementary), American Gothic is about a bunch of good actors who got suckered into a really bad series. Its the story of a Boston family whose father, Mitchell Hawthorne (Jamey Sheridan in a role that smartly seems to be uncredited), could be the infamous Silver Bells serial killer; whose eldest son, Garrett (Antony Starr, Banshee), could also be the serial killer; other son Cam (Justin Chatwin, Shameless), who might also possibly be the serial killer; Cam's son Jack (Gabriel Bateman), who will absolutely grow up to be a serial killer; daughter Alison (Juliet Rylance), a cold-hearted politician who might turn out to be the serial killer if you waste your summer watching this long enough; other daughter Tessa (Megan Ketch), who is probably too dumb to be a serial killer; and finally Madeline (Virginia Madsen), the Hawthorne family matriarch who is definitely a killer, though maybe not a serial killer, but who knows, really.

It's quite the clan.

If you're wondering why such a dour subject matter elicited laughs, here's a short rundown:

Chatwin's hair is so crazily distracting and teased in such a look-at-this-thing mess that every time he enters a scene it becomes hilarious. Starr plays the eldest brother, and he's basically in a catatonic state in the early going, lumbering unwanted around the Hawthorne house after a 14-year absence and mumbling into his beard (which he then cuts off with a big hunting knife he sharpens ominously on a rock). I wanted a whole series where the wiry, electric star of Banshee basically just shuffles around the property like he'd just woken up from a coma — kind of sleepy as ominous.

Young Bateman is asked to be Chatwin's weird son who likes to draw dead people and talk about morbid things, cut off a cat's tail ("Garden shears can cut through bone!" he says excitedly) and wonder aloud if dead Mitchell has bad breath now that he's a corpse. In short, this poor child actor has apparently been told to act like a very young Charles Manson, only way creepier. Every time he said anything, I burst out laughing.

He seems like a fine actor (who has been cast in other creepy roles, so typecasting is real and starts early); Chatwin was great on Shameless, and Starr was fantastic on Banshee. So, really, all or most of these people have done good work in the past, and American Gothic shouldn't be held against them. It should, however, be held up as perhaps a perfect example of not knowing how bad something can be until you're in the middle of it, which would certainly explain how Sheridan, another actor with many good roles in his past, just basically decides to close his eyes repeatedly before dying in the first episode — clearly he couldn't bear to witness his agent's mistake.

Everything in American Gothic is faux-weird and faux-creepy, which creates this looming sense that everyone is about to start laughing and admit that the show is a spoof. Spoiler alert: That doesn't happen.

When half your cast appears to be acting in different shows, that should be a sign you've got issues. Better to bail early on American Gothic than spend hours wondering if any of this will make sense or why the killer put silver dinner bells next to his victim or if the on-set hairdresser was rebelling through Chatwin's hair. It's summer — go outside and spend your time not watching this mess.

Cast: Juliet Rylance, Virginia Madsen, Justin Chatwin, Antony Starr, Megan Ketch
Created and written by: Corinne Brinkerhoff

Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)