American Gothic Season 1 Episode 1 Review: Arrangement in Grey and Black

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There's a killer among the Hawthorne family. Maybe. Probably.

American Gothic Season 1 Episode 1 introduced the prominent Boston family that is at the center of one big mystery ("Is one of these people the infamous Silver Bells Killer?") and a bunch of smaller, decidedly less interesting mysteries.

Silver Bells - American Gothic

Pilots are hard. It's difficult to introduce the audience to your TV show, establishing characters you want to root for and a world that they believe in, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a story that the audience will want to watch unfold – something that will keep them tuning in, week after week.

Unfortunately, American Gothic is not quite there for me. Yet, anyway.

I make a point not to pass final judgment after a series premiere. Typically, I give something at least five episodes before I officially give it the boot from my TV watching schedule. This premiere didn't set anything up that I haven't seen done a million times before.

Much of "Arrangement in Grey and Black" was focused on introducing the family and establishing their relationships to one another while simultaneously developing the "Who Is The Silver Bells Killer?" mystery. Nearly every character was a stereotype of one sort or another, though.

Alison, the older sister, is the frosty, no-nonsense politician, decidedly reserved and aloof – but harboring a big secret of her own (probably, based on that final shot of her texting Naomi, the campaign manager).

My initial reaction was that Alison and the campaign manager are having an affair (who texts "I can't sleep..." to someone with whom they have a purely professional relationship?), but it's too early to know. If that's the case, Alison is way too similar to another character from a recent, failed family mystery/drama – Willa Warren from The Family.

Cam, the younger brother, is a cartoonist and ex-drug addict. He's the resident "screw up" in the family, but at least the Jack angle makes him semi-interesting and unique.

Jack, Cam's son with ex-wife (and continued drug user) Sophie, is 100% a burgeoning psychopath (or sociopath – I always confuse those two). Jack spent the entire premiere being a creepy little kid, drawing dead bodies and harping on about wanting to be a forensic medical examiner, but then upped the ante in a shocking and unexpectedly gruesome way. He chopped the tail off of Caramel, the "missing" cat of an elderly neighbor woman!

That was gross. Jack's cheerful and nonplussed response and Cam's horror at finding out what he'd done ("It's a science experiment!") was so over the top dramatic that it was almost humorous. I'd have laughed if I wasn't so squicked out seeing Jack holding that incredibly fake looking fluffy cat tail.

Jack: You're weird.
Garrett: Alright.
Jack: It's okay. I'm weird, too.

The presumption that we're supposed to make, here, is that Jack is somehow genetically predisposed to morbidity (and possibly serial-killing) – like good ol' Uncle Garrett.

Eldest Hawthorne brother Garrett is the prodigal son – disappeared 14 years ago to go be a regular Stephen King in Maine, he was called back by youngest sister Tessa, for whom he quite clearly has a soft spot, after their father's heart attack.

He's creepy, he's mysterious, he could be the killer – except he's definitely not. Way too obvious. That uber ominous hunting knife sharpening on a rock? Are you for real, show?

After Tessa and Cam found the box of SBK paraphernalia (a newspaper clipping about the killings and a couple of spare bells of the sort the killer left as calling cards), they quickly suspect Garrett. Well, Cam does – Tessa can't quite comprehend that the brother she loved so much would have been serial-murdering. 

Tessa: We're not so bad, are we?
Garrett: You're not.

Tessa was immediately my least favorite character, possibly because she is so naive and boring. She is clearly supposed to be the focal point through which we, the audience, enter the world of the show. But I just don't care about her at all. Whereas each of the other siblings are at least a little intriguing and mysterious, Tessa is just not.

Finally, the big twist of the hour: Hawthorne matriarch Madeline killed her husband in cold blood, in his hospital room, by cutting off his oxygen supply.

We've been set up to believe that Mitchell either was the killer or knew who the killer was, which basically confirms that neither of the two men will be revealed to be the killer.

Alison's creepy twin daughters told her that Garrett secretly whispered that he would tell everyone that Mitchell did "it." Knowing what she knows about the secret box, Alison clearly thought this meant that Garrett knew their father was a killer.

Since this is a mystery, I'll indulge in a bit of amateur sleuthing: since it's too obvious that Garrett or Mitchell (or even Madeline) would be the Silver Bells Killer, it's more likely that it's somebody else and that Garrett, Mitchell, and Madeline covered it up.

Or, more specifically, that Madeline and Mitchell covered it up, and that Garrett found out about it and fled to Maine to be a rugged, hunting knife-shaving outdoorsman.

That would also explain Madeline murdering Mitchell – if she's a protective mama bear-type, she'd have sacrificed her husband to prevent him from turning in one of their children.

Overall, the acting was good (mostly) but the material was a bit uninspired, with some particularly clunky moments of dialogue, and an overall very standard "well-known family harbors a big, dark secret" plot. Here's hoping they shake things up a bit as the season continues.

Stray thoughts:

  • I get that the neighbor lady was distraught about her cat Caramel being missing, but she was WAY too aggressive with the family.
  • Brody was looking sort of suspicious, going over that evidence and looking at the picture of his wife in the closing shot. What's his deal?
  • Alison's husband is played by Dylan Bruce ("Hot Paul" of Orphan Black fame) and hilariously had not one single line of dialogue in this premiere. That was sort of weird.
  • The central conceit of this show – that a seasoned and elusive serial killer would keep an EXTREMELY obvious box of evidence in a shed on their own property – is absurd. Watch the big twist be that none of the Hawthornes are the killer because, honestly, who on earth would be that dumb?
  • Garrett very pointedly had a closet full of old high school athletic gear and trophies. Is this going to be a major aspect of his backstory? Seems pretty random to have been given that lingering shot.

Who Is The Silver Bells Killer? I'm going to do this every week. To start us off, I'm going for the most OUTLANDISH possible guess – Jack Hawthorne, Cam's creepy son. Time-traveling serial killer. You heard it here first, folks.

What did you think of the series premiere? Are you hooked? Leave me a comment below and watch American Gothic online here at TV Fanatic to relive the premiere!

Arrangement in Grey and Black Review

Editor Rating: 3.25 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 4.1 / 5.0 (31 Votes)

Caralynn Lippo is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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American Gothic Season 1 Episode 1 Quotes

Cam: It's just weed.
Tessa: Don't lie to me.
Cam: It's not just weed.

Honey, did you order a walking Norman Rockwell painting?