Television review

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The Independent Culture
Life in Trinity, the small Southern town in which American Gothic (C4) takes place, is bizarre even at the best of times. Asked to describe his science project, a tow-headed pupil at the local school pipes up: "Me and mah daddy are gonna show how come venison tastes best if you get a good clean head shot and don't ruin it." And he's one of the normal ones. Miss Coombs, the smouldering vamp the class is lucky enough to be taught by, murmurs appreciatively at his initiative. If I was in Miss Coombs's class, I think I would propose a project on human reproduction, because she behaves as though she's constantly on the point of erotic ignition. You would surely get some extra tuition. The only appropriate gift for a teacher this sultry would be a pack of apple-flavoured condoms.

But then everything in Trinity is on-heat, shimmering and sweaty with lust or turbid menace. The principal manipulator of this is Sheriff Lucas Buck, an urbanely malevolent puppet-master. "He's always there when trouble starts," says one of his nervous victims, which you would have thought was a fine recommendation for a lawman, but for the fact that the trouble wouldn't start without him. Sheriff Buck is fighting a battle for the spiritual custody of Caleb Temple, a young boy he has taken the precaution of orphaning first, but is being impeded by Dr Crower, a clean-limbed incarnation of righteousness. Caleb (played by Lucas Black) possesses this ludicrous series' greatest asset, a honed pair of eyebrows precisely angled above brooding eyes, so that his face acts as a kind of logo for troubled intensity. Jack Nicholson spookily scowls out from behind a child's face.

The comparison hardly helps in any other respect, because American Gothic is strikingly incompetent at its principal task - making the hair stand up on the back of your neck. As Channel 4's screening of The Shining proved at the weekend, some directors can make even a child's tricycle into a harbinger of doom. Here, despite the creative involvement of Sam Raimi, a director with some bloodily unnerving horror movies to his credit, the direction can do little but shout "Boo", with increasing desperation. If the scene is close-cropped on a character's face, you can guarantee that Lucas, or one of his biddable rednecks, will suddenly pop in from the side of the frame. When that fails, the narrative will take time out for a quick montage of paranormal manifestations and solarised footage, sequences which are more like a show-reel for a special effects company than an integral part of the film. It doesn't help that it has no internal consistency either - with Sheriff Buck possessed of demonic powers of intuition at one moment, and yet oddly bluffable at the next. The most scary thing about it is that nobody seems to have worried that it isn't scary at all.

Trial and Error (C4) was far more chilling, an account of suburban madness or of calculated evil, depending on whether you think Eddie Gilfoyle was rightly convicted for the murder of his wife, Paula, or not. If he did kill her, then she must have been the most obliging victim in criminal history, writing out suicide notes at her husband's dictation and subsequently mounting a step ladder to put her head through a noose attached to the garage rafters. David Jessel had some fun at the expense of the Merseyside Police, whose investigation seems to have been less than rigorous, as well as contributing a certain amount of the colour-supplement writing which conventionally enlivens these exercises in appeal-by-television (the Wirral peninsula was described as "a spit of land in two minds about its identity", which is probably the most exciting thing that's ever been said about it). The case for Gilfoyle's innocence wasn't absolutely conclusive, but the picture that emerged of his wife - depressed, compulsively orderly, aware of impending financial crisis - left you with more than reasonable doubt.

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