American Gothic

TV review by
Kari Croop, Common Sense Media
American Gothic TV Poster Image
Soapy whodunit mixes murder, drugs, and family dysfunction.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Major themes include deception, family dysfunction, and murder -- and there aren't always clear consequences for negative behaviors.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though a few characters seem to act in pursuit of the truth, an overwhelming number use deception to obscure their own agendas. Most of the Hawthornes have ulterior motives -- and some are harboring dark secrets, including a child who's unnaturally obsessed with death.


The series centers on a string of serial killings, though it isn't particularly bloody.


Steamy kissing and extramarital affairs (including a same-sex encounter); sex is implied with bare shoulders in bedclothes, but no sensitive parts are shown.


Characters use words such as "damn" and "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An important character struggles with a heroin addiction; social drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Gothic centers on a string of serial killings that aren't particularly bloody, as the killer's MO is to strangle victims with a belt. That said, you'll see shots of dead bodies, witness a man on life support dying in a hospital bed, and meet a young boy who has a disturbing preoccupation with death and, at one point, disfigures a neighborhood cat. There's also some steamy sexual stuff, including implied sex and an extramarital encounter, along with audible words such as "hell" and "damn." Characters drink socially, and one family member struggles with heroin addiction.

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What's the story?

Exploring the interplay between artifice and art, AMERICAN GOTHIC centers on a prominent Boston family that’s forced to reexamine everything when an accident unearths evidence that one of them is a serial killer. Suspects include family patriarch Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife, Madeline (Virginia Madsen), a couple who built their wealth from humble beginnings; their estranged older son, Garrett (Antony Starr), who's been living off the grid for more than a decade; their take-charge daughter, Alison (Juliet Rylance), who's running for mayor; and their youngest son, Cam (Justin Chatwin), a single father struggling with addiction.

Is it any good?

Though it’s chock-full of artsy references that go way beyond Grant Wood's iconic painting, this gimmicky attempt at a cultured mystery largely feels like a misfire. From a lesbian affair that feels forced and contrived to an estranged brother who not-so-subtly shaves his beard with a hunting knife (not to mention a loyal family groundskeeper named Gunther), these are concepts you might come up with while thumbing through a book of Mad Libs. Which actually makes the whole thing rather funny, though we're not quite sure that’s the intent.

And yet, problems aside, American Gothic is still fairly watchable, and you'll find yourself wanting to know who did it in spite of your better judgment. Madsen is effectively chilly as the family matriarch with shadowy motives, and the child actor playing her death-obsessed grandson adds some uncomfortably dark humor to the proceedings. It’s also kind of fun to hunt for art references hidden in between the bad dialogue, including a clever visual nod to "Whistler's Mother" at the end of the pilot and allusions to the works of Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about American Gothic's family dynamics and about the dysfunction dishonesty can breed. Which family members are the most trustworthy, and how can you tell? Is it possible to be 100 percent truthful, and is it ever OK to tell a lie? How important is honesty when it comes to maintaining healthy relationships?

  • How accurately does American Gothic portray the real-life struggles (and consequences) of drug addiction? Is it possible for an addict to change? What are the roadblocks to lasting recovery?

  • How often does American Gothic reference the art world, and what's the point? Which notable art references can you spot, and why are they important?

TV details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love drama

Themes & Topics

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