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Television

‘American Gothic’ explores a wealthy family torn apart by suspicion one of them is a serial killer

Virginia Madsen, Justin Chatwin, and Antony Starr star in the new CBS drama “American Gothic”
Virginia Madsen, Justin Chatwin, and Antony Starr star in the new CBS drama “American Gothic”
(Christos Kalohoridis/CBS)

Here’s today’s quiz. “American Gothic” is:

A. An iconic American painting of a farmer holding a pitchfork as he stands beside his wife or daughter in front of a farmhouse.

B. A short-lived 1990s horror series about a sinister North Carolina sheriff and his murderous campaign.

C. A new drama about a wealthy Boston family torn apart by the suspicion that a family member may be a brutal serial killer.

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D. All of the above.

If you chose D, give yourself a hand.

But for CBS, the only correct answer — at least for this summer — is C.

The newest “American Gothic,” debuting Wednesday, shares a title and nothing else with the former “American Gothic,” which also aired on CBS and was created by ex-“Hardy Boys” actor Shaun Cassidy. However, there are thematic parallels between the new show and the famous painting.

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“The painting seems to be this portrait of benign domesticity,” said executive producer Corine Brinkerhoff. “But on closer inspection, it’s unnerving and a bit awry.”

Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’
Grant Wood's 'American Gothic.'
(Apic / Getty Images )
“The painting seems to be this portrait of benign domesticity. But on closer inspection, it’s unnerving and a bit awry.
Corine Brinkerhoff

The 13-episode series from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and CBS Television Studios stars Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”), Justin Chatwin (“Shameless”) and Megan Ketch (“Under The Dome”) as members of the prominent Hawthorne family, who may have a psychopath in their midst — the infamous Silver Bells Killer who leaves small silver bells beside his victims.

Brinkerhoff, who created the series, was inspired by an incident in Kansas where she grew up.

“There was a case about a serial killer who was finally caught after going dormant for some time, and he turned out to be a fully functional family man,” said Brinkerhoff by phone from the set. “I was always fascinated and haunted by the duality of that man, and fascinated by the consequences of the people close to him.”

But the show’s center is the family dynamics that develop in the upheaval of the crisis, she said. “It’s not clear who the killer is, but as the suspicion and paranoia grows, we see how it trickles down to the other family members. I wanted to explore what happens in a family in the wake of revelations. How does this impact the perception of your life and family now that these seemingly benign memories are being put through this filter?”

Even the cast of “American Gothic,” which is in production in Toronto, is clueless about who the real killer is, Brinkerhoff said: “They’ve all been kept in the dark, so they look at each other with suspicion while we’re shooting.”

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Leading the ensemble is Madsen, who plays the quiet but ruthless matriarch Madeline Hawthorne, willing to take extreme measures to protect her family’s reputation.

I’m drawn to dark tales. And I haven’t been able to play this kind of role before — a woman who wields her own power.
Virginia Madsen

“I just love to play her,” said the actress. “I’ve been playing a lot of nice ladies in uplifting tales, women who are strong but not powerful. This is the kind of thing I’ve been looking for — I’m drawn to dark tales. And I haven’t been able to play this kind of role before — a woman who wields her own power.”

Chatwin said he felt a special connection with his character, Cam Hawthorne, a sensitive artist who is battling his demons of addiction while also grappling with his troubled young son, who is displaying early signs of pathological behavior.

Said Chatwin, “It’s a great part. Corine is telling a high-stakes story but in a real quirky way.”

Though proud of the show, Brinkerhoff  is also contending with the perception of some viewers that her “American Gothic” is a revival of the old series, which lasted just one season.

“That show had a very passionate following, and there were people who were very disappointed when they found out that this wasn’t a reboot,” she said. “I heard it was incredible, but there’s no connection. However, there is a true gothic feel and element to our show.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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Twitter:@GeBraxton


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