American Gothic

Okay, it’s compare-and-contrast time. American Horror Story fans, meet American Gothic. I’ve been thinking there is a resemblance there, beyond just the title, and the recent addition of enigmatic Sarah Paulson to the cast of the former prompted me to finally write this.

Let’s start with the subject matter. Subverting the archetype of the happy American family has been done in practically every genre of entertainment, but works especially well for horror. The idea of evil lurking beneath the facade of normalcy may be what scares us more than anything. Continue reading


When a character in TV or film stumbles into a Town with a Dark Secret… or Cleveland… they do so one of two ways: by relocating to make a fresh start, usually following a tragedy, (Secret Circle, Manhattan, AZ, Locke and Key) or by getting stranded there (Lost, Hot in Cleveland). Eureka‘s Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) falls into the latter category.

The show opens, however, with a wife calling her husband to bed. We pan down to the basement to find the husband tinkering with a large mechanical device reminiscent of the launchpad from the movie Contact. As its concentric circles spin the nerdy-looking man exclaims, “Susan, it works!” The sinister score lets us know that, whatever the gadget is doing isn’t good.

We meet Jack, a U.S. Marshall, as he is driving along an otherwise deserted road in his police car, with a mouthy young girl riding in back. Zoe (Jordan Hinson) and Jack are presented as prisoner and arresting officer, but bicker more like smartass teenager and protective but frustrated father. So it’s not really a big reveal when we later learn that he is, in fact her father.

They run off the road trying to avoid a dog, But not before Zoe witnesses a supernatural sight: She sees a duplicate of Jack’s car, with duplicate passengers inside, passing them on the road. Jack doesn’t believe her.

While he sets off to get the car repaired, Jack hands Zoe over to the local police station for incarceration. There, we meet Sheriff Bill Cobb and Deputy Jo Lupo (Erica Cerra), a bitter overgrown tomboy. Up to this point the characters seem relatively normal if slightly standoffish. The only major hint that something is unusual in this picturesque Oregon town is a boy of no more than nine, carrying a book on theoretical physics, gives oddly articulate directions.

As tends to happen in these situations, the car cannot be repaired right away. Local mechanic Henry Deacon (Joe Morton) informs an exasperated Jack that the job will take a few days. So, in the meantime, Jack winds up helping solve a local mystery of national interest. A big hole has been blown in the back of an RV belonging to Walter, the nerdy man from the opening scene. While he is clearly hiding something, he seems well liked by the townspeople.

Next Jack meets Allison Blake (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) who trumps his U.S. Marshall status by announcing she represents the Department of Defense.  The RV isn’t the only thing blown apart–there has been mysterious damage to other locales and some cows. We find that whatever can of worms Walter has opened is causing a lot of trouble, and that representatives from a local research agency are trying to cover it up.

Each scene takes us a little deeper into WTF territory. This town is definitely hiding something. As Jack and Allison enter a secured area he askis, “Where are you taking me, Area 51?” She replies, “Please, they wish they had our security.” At the midpoint, we finally get some explanation: Eureka was founded by President Truman, at the request of Albert Einstein, to house the greatest scientific minds in the country. We’re still not sure just what they’re up to at the moment or why explosions from Henry’s garage are treated as commonplace. The town has an isolationist nature that begins to get creepy; it reminds me of the corporate-run communities in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

As Jack delves deeper into the mystery–he has nothing else to do–we get to know him a little better. He is recently separated from his wife. From Zoe’s snarky remarks we glean that he is a workaholic who hasn’t made time for his wife and child.

…And some other stuff happens. This pilot is little rambly and long (2 hours) as the writers attempt to introduce–it seems–the whole freaking town. And on top of setting up characters and conventions, the episode still basically follows a mystery-of-the-week formula. The problem is solved, the world is saved, and Jack and Zoe seem to be on their way out. But just as we reach end, we witness a murder. And it turns out Jack has been appointed Sheriff of Eureka and will be hanging around for a while.

Manhattan, AZ

I decided to look at Manhattan, AZ and Eureka* back-to-back since they both center around police officers finding themselves in strange, new towns. Both fit squarely into the Town with a Dark Secret trope. (See also Haven.) The similarities go even further; both Daniel of Manhattan, AZ and Jack of Eureka have teenage children with bad attitudes and are recently separated from their wives (one by death, the other by choice). Each meets a series of oddball people including a hard ass female law enforcement official. And yet, these shows could not be more different.

The first word that comes to mind in describing Manhattan, AZ is “wacky.” It’s wacky in the way that Pushing Daisies was wacky, but with an irreverence reminiscent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with a dash of My Name is Earl. Unfortunately, Manhattan, AZ predated all of these, so I can’t image how it would have been described in the fall of 2000.

The clash of serious subjects and ridiculousness is almost confusing for the first 2-3 minutes of the pilot. The protagonist, Daniel Henderson (Brian McNamara), narrates certain events but what is seen on screen doesn’t quite match up. Once you get the hang of this, you can’t help but wonder where it’s going to go next.

Daniel describes his perfect life in the perfect house with his perfect wife, perfect son and perfect job. The job is as an under cover officer for the LAPD, where we see Daniel and other officers prepping for “Operation Thong Sausage,” a prostitution sting. The seriousness with which Daniel treats this assignment juxtaposed with his ridiculous appearance in an evening gown and wig is one example of the show’s exercise in contrasts. His wife, Charlie pursues the “insignificant little hobby” of chasing down Dolphin poachers. When she dies in a diving accident and is canned as tuna (her name is Charlie, get it?), an event to which he reacts by watching “anything with Alec Baldwin in it” while his son stuffs his face and plays video games.

As Daniel continues his narration, describing his decision to move to Arizona and take a new job he tells us, “everything looked different,” and suddenly a different actor (Vincent Berry) is playing the kid. This is the kind of apropos-of-nothing joke that litters the script. As father and son land in Manhattan, Arizona about six minutes in, the show shifts from voice-over to ordinary dialogue. They meet the mayor, Jake Manhattan, played by Chad Everett (for whom the town is named… I guess?) and learn about Area 61, essentially just Area 51. (The name is trademarked… I guess?)

Daniel soon learns that a lot of the neighborhood pets are turning up with missing right hind legs, a scandal the townspeople blame on the “government guys over at Area 61.” In an absurd town hall meeting scene, Atticus returns the missing animal limbs and takes responsibility for the crimes. The town of Manhattan has the same small town feel of Eureka, but the people are strange, not in a like-able way but just plain strange. It is hard to sympathize with these characters–even the son, who we know is struggling with major change.

Daniel soon figures out that Atticus is just creating drama to convince his dad to move them back to L.A. and hasn’t actually harmed any animals. The mystery of the week is wrapped up pretty quickly and easily. Being a comedy and only half an hour long, this pilot focuses more on introducing a tone and style, with a few laughs–if you’re into it’s particular brand of humor. The single-camera style and absence of a laugh track differentiate it from the typical sit-com, so it takes a little adjustment. It doesn’t have the benefit of Eureka’s two hours to subtly build character and setting. Based on the presence of Area 61 we’re expecting some type of alien plot, yet aliens don’t figure into the pilot at all. It’s a little hard to see where this is all going. It didn’t go far, in fact–the show only lasted for eight episodes. From this, it doesn’t appear to have been any great loss.

*I’ll be posting about Eureka within the next few days!