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Review: Steven Spielberg-produced ‘American Gothic’ chokes on its own pretensions

Virginia Madsen and Jamey Sheridan in “American Gothic”
Virginia Madsen (Madeline Hawthorne) and Jamey Sheridan (Mitchell Hawthorne), star in new CBS drama “American Gothic.”
(Christos Kalohoridis/CBS)

Even after almost 100 years, many questions surround Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic.” Was it a rural American satire or a paean?  A portrait of mourning, small-minded oblivion or agrarian stoicism? Were the two figures a couple or a man and his daughter? And what was with the cathedral gothic windows?

All of which are mysteries far more compelling than the one presented in CBS’ new there’s-a-serial-killer-among-us series of the same title.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and choking on its own pretensions, Corinne Brinkerhoff’s “American Gothic” references the masters with the straight-faced, non sequitur regularity of a bad first date – “Is that an original Pollock?” is an actual line from the pilot.

Yet even within the forgiving subgenre of breezy, cheesy summer shows (see also Spielberg’s “Under the Dome”), this “American Gothic” remains strictly paint-by-numbers.

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Sorry, but you had to see that one coming.

In Boston (which is really Toronto in a quite obviously not-Boston way), the Hawthorne family (alas, it isn’t just paintings that get dragged into this morass of allusions) is gathering to kick off the mayoral campaign of eldest daughter Alison (Juliet Rylance).

Ma and Pa Hawthorne, which is to say Madeline and Mitchell, are played by Virginia Madsen and Jamey Sheridan, but that doesn’t help much because they are forced to create the parental climate clash of icy (her) and warm (him) that so many screenwriters believe inevitably results in a tornado of familial dysfunction. (Oh, those controlling mothers!)

Along with the obsessively ambitious Alison (we know she’s obsessively ambitious because she wants to run for mayor), there’s Cam (Justin Chatwin), a successful cartoonist/recovering drug addict; Tessa (Megan Ketch), the sweet baby of the family who Just Happens to be married to a detective (Elliot Knight), and an estranged son To Be Named Later.

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That would be Garrett (“Banshee’s” Antony Starr), who, for the last 14 years has apparently been living off the grid, eating squirrels and refusing to shave. But in the early minutes of the pilot, the Hawthornes most certainly don’t want to talk about him. They want to explain that while, yes that is an original Pollock, they made it to the top the old fashioned way — by building a concrete empire.

Which is, at this very moment, collapsing to reveal a possible Hawthorne connection to the city’s most infamous cold case: the Silver Bells killer.

Those individuals blessed with the ability to say the words “Silver Bells killer” without laughing may be better equipped to enjoy “American Gothic,” though the challenge becomes greater when it is revealed that the bells in question are hand bells.

Yes indeed, in the late 1990s and early aughts, the fictional “Bostonto” was stalked by a serial killer who, unlike any serial killer ever, targeted the city’s rich and powerful. And, in place of a weapon or the smallest clue, he or she left behind only a silver hand bell.

Because that wouldn’t narrow down a serial killer profile. Because bulk purchases of small silver hand bells wouldn’t be hard to trace.

Whatever, a tunnel collapses, a clue is revealed and before you can say, “Um, was that tunnel built with Hawthorne concrete?” Mitchell’s in the ICU, Garrett has returned to menace various family members with knowing looks and Cam and Tessa go poking through Dad’s things while doing some math (hey, the killings stopped right around the time Garrett left town; you don’t think….).

Meanwhile, it quickly becomes clear that Madeline knows way more than is good for anyone. And I mean, quickly.

On television, unhappy families are far more common and similar in appearance than happy ones, and “American Gothic’s” most immediate kin is, in fact, the recently departed “The Family,” down to the immediate draw of the lead actress. Like Joan Allen in “The Family,” Madsen is a performer of note and great audience sympathy. But she is trapped, as the rest of the cast is trapped, in a story that values cleverness over intelligence or even entertainment; in the first two episodes, only Chatwin is able to break free and then only for a few moments.

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But the art references, they just keep on coming, so you might want to have a notebook handy.  The pilot, which is titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” ends with a visual reference to the painting, more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The second episode is called “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” which alludes to a moment involving Cam’s young son but also, heaven help us, a Georgia O’Keeffe painting;  “Nighthawks” is No. 3; “Christina’s World,” No. 4.

Quickly followed, one assumes, by  “The Scream.”  

Oh wait, that was me.      

‘American Gothic’

Where: CBS

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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