Gruesome deaths

TV Review: American Gothic
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The Independent Culture
Messages written in blood, gruesome deaths, children with biblical names, ghosts who are better looking than their living selves, skeletons in cupboards, an evil sheriff: this can only be small-town America. American Gothic (C4), a 20-part drama directed by Sam Raimi, whom you might remember for the rapacious forest plants in The Evil Dead, kicked off with two murders, a small boy in peril, a feisty journalist returning to her hometown to confront her demons and a nice doctor from Harvard who has his suspicions.

No prizes for guessing who the heroes are going to be. Twin Peaks this ain't, though, judging from the schlanging Chris Isaak-style guitar as the opening credits rolled, it would dearly like to be. Raimi is a more- than-competent director (whatever else he does, Darkman will stand as testimony to that) who lacks the vital ingredient of total insanity that makes David Lynch a great one. Former teen idol Shaun Cassidy, whose fevered imagination produced the town of Trinity, South Carolina, and its ghoulish inhabitants, obviously has a firm hand on the old word processor. One can but hope that 19 more episodes prove he understands the human character as well.

So: shocks galore, and a nymphomaniac schoolteacher to boot. The catchline of the series appears to be "Someone's at the door". As a catchline, it's not bad, though it doesn't have the redolence of "the owls are not what they seem". Actually, I've got a feeling that it's going to get mightily on my nerves before long. It issued initially from the lips of 16-year- old Merlyn Temple (Sarah Paulson), the catatonic sister of pre-teen Caleb (Lucas Black). In fact, she said it so often that her father clocked her with a spade to shut her up. Enter Lucas Buck, local sheriff and Not What He Seems. His first action was to finish the girl off.

There then followed a series of set-piece shocks. Merlyn's corpse wept blood. The errant father was found in his cell with the hapless deputy's pen through his windpipe. Caleb, recuperating in hospital under the kindly eye of Good Doctor Matt Crower (Jake Weber), woke in the night to find that ghostly forces had scribbled "Someone's at the door" in blood on his own. He raced home, mended his broken birthday cake (ah, symbolism) and met his sister's ghost. She filled him (and, of course, us,) in on a few things he didn't know: he was actually Lucas's son, the product of the rape that had also turned Merlyn weird. And Lucas was after him. Pilots are always difficult: you have to introduce such a lot of information in such a short amount of time. But really, I've had more shocks from the inside of my sock drawer.

The effect of Gothic might just have been watered down by the horrors that preceded it. Tales From The Wasteland (C4), part of the second night of the Broke season, left one frothing at the mouth at the way this nation of Gradgrinds has steadily victimised its weakest members over the past few years. This was done by the simple method of showing us the daily lives of four desperately poor families and interspersing them with famous quotations from public figures in the field.

As with this, from Keith Joseph: "The only lasting help we can give the poor is helping them to help themselves; to do the opposite, to create more dependence, is to destroy them morally, whilst throwing an unfair burden on society." There was no evidence that we are doing anything at all to help the poor improve their lot, unless closing law centres, Citizen's Advice Bureaux and adult education centres is part of a deliberate plan to make them take responsibility for themselves. What we did see was tears and terror behind the net curtains.

There were also some stark truths that should make even the most committed tax-cutter think again. Debt has risen fivefold in the past decade. Three million people are visited weekly by debt collectors. Interest rates of 50 per cent are legal. Children nurse graveyard coughs from sleeping on rotting mattresses in sub-zero temperatures. Still, at least their morals are protected.