Every season or so since “Revenge” got our hopes up (ABC, 2011), there’s been at least one vaguely named network show that tries to mine the “Crazy Rich White People” vein Emily Thorne and Victoria Grayson (Emily VanCamp and the wildly insane Madeleine Stowe) uncovered.
Once a staple of nightly programming, the rich-folks soap went into decline around the time “Grey’s Anatomy” instituted our new standard of workplace romance — but in its new form, it’s becoming something strange and often otherworldly.
Typically from a female creator/showrunner, featuring a recognizable cast and plenty of clever, fresh one-liners, it’s become a favorite niche genre — combining drama, murder, elegance and utter weirdness with mostly single-season runs makes their sequential greenlighting and middling ratings a sort of meta-show of its very own.
- “Deception” (NBC, 2013): That’s the one where Meagan Good reenters her old life among the crazy rich white people; without irony, also the greatest work of Tate Donovan’s career.
- “Hostages” (CBS, 2013): Straight up terrible, and perhaps influenced more by “Homeland” than a true member of the genre, but the twists and focus on terrible people being rewarded for doing horrible things, both created the illusion of Crazy Rich White People drama and provided a dense checklist of things to never do when making a show.
- “Secrets & Lies” (ABC, 2015): Now in its second season, and more “Gone Girl” than “insane dynasty,” per se, but nails the look and feel.
- “The Family” (ABC, 2016): The weirdest entry — until now — containing not one but multiple child molesters, each of whom was more oddly and upsettingly loveable than the last. Staked its claim early on, with an unforgettably bizarre scene in which Alison Pill interrupts her nightly prayers with a quick masturbation sesh and then gets right back to it, all without getting up off the floor. Tremendous.
As affably strange as “The Family” was, “American Gothic” may have arrived at the most perfect recipe to date: A lush and spooky world permeated by classic art references — each episode’s title painting is reproduced in at least one shot during the episode — freaky characters and pop-culture references as random as they are apropos, and a knowing approach to tropes of thriller and soap stories.
It’s that last bit, the thriller trope in-jokes, that were so striking with last night’s two-hour finale, as multiple women were called up to bat as the possible femme fatale at the heart of it all. We knew already that the original Silver Bells Killer didn’t get too far on his mission back in the day before fully half of the Hawthorne family took part in his death (without knowing it), and matriarch Madeline (Virginia Madsen) took his game to the next level.
Madeline was shady from the jump — it took multiple episodes to grasp that she wasn’t the adult children’s stepmother, so chilly was the vibe even before she killed her husband — but on a regular show, the twist that Mom was a prolific serial killer would have sent up all kinds of red flags. As it was, and with so much story to go, it seemed like fair play.
That’s why the finale’s midpoint, in which we’re led to believe SBK’s daughter is Naomi Flynn (Maureen Sebastian) — the secret lover and soulmate of icy candidate big-sister Alison (Juliet Rylance) — was such a momentary letdown. Had it not been a two-hour event, that last-minute “reveal” — even given her pose, self-consciously mirroring John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting “Madame X” — would have been a major roadblock. The spurned lesbian sidepiece-turned-psycho trope is nothing new, and certainly beneath the show’s dignity, so it’s smart that we got another hour on top of it.
The real SBK 2.0 turned out to be, in fact, Sophie Hawthorne (Stephanie Leonidas), disastrous ex-wife of the hapless Cam (Justin Chatwin): A rampage-prone drug addict with a blind spot about her young son’s sociopathy so wide she increasingly seemed in favor of letting him get as dark as possible. As the serial killer daughter of a serial killer, of course, her disinterest in treating Jack (Gabriel Bateman) takes on a whole new meaning, and ties a neat bow in Cam’s ongoing struggle to discern the nature/nurture breakdown of his son’s terrifying wackiness.
Any question as to why the demonstrably talented Leonidas (from Neil Gaiman’s “Mirrormask” and Syfy’s “Defiance”) had been relegated to such a boring, nasty role was erased, as she spent the final hour on a rampage that left Madeline dead — embodying the episode’s artistic reference, “Whistler’s Mother,” and pinning a rose on the serial killer-as-artist theme that ties the conceptual nexus of the show together — and the Hawthorne family out of danger, if heartbroken.
… for the most part. A jump into the future gave us happy endings for most: Alison has achieved her mayoral dream with Naomi at her side, the always delightful Tessa (“Jane the Virgin’s” Megan Ketch) and super sketchy Garrett (Antony Starr) have settled down with their future co-parents (Elliot Knight’s Brady and Catalina Sandino Moreno’s Christina), and Cam is happily in love with his sober buddy Dana (“One Three Hill’s” Bethany Joy Lenz). But surely that can’t be all, says the overcast beach and neverendingly creepy music, and of course it is not.
It’s a chilling and thrilling moment as we pull back from a joyous family reunion to see young Jack at the periphery, angrily awaiting his psycho mom’s return from the lam. One of the show’s most endearing tics — a scene or two in every episode where Jack does something truly, magnificently strange — couldn’t have been leading anywhere more perfect.
But it’s the very final shot that brings it home: A quick rewind 24 hours to Alison’s calm approach and tasking Sophie with Madeline’s murder. Having put the SBK pieces together well in advance of everyone else, and sick to death of Madeline’s creepy ways, Alison sent Sophie off to do her dirty work and spent her last day of the campaign AWOL, without a thought to her family’s confusion and fear.
And as she stares happily into the camera, all questions answered and obstacles overcome, the show’s insistence on pushing her striking similarities to Rosemund Pike’s Amy Dunne — even to the point of enlisting a similarly deep-voiced and selachimorphic actress (Erica Deutschman) to play her as a teen — quite clear: While Madeline was the villain of the piece — even Sophie and her father receive a somewhat compelling, if emptily #Occupy, backstory by the end — it’s the unfathomable and fascinating Mayor Alison who outplayed the queen, and is more than happy to take her place.
It’s not exactly a plot twist, but as the final moment it’s definitely an artistic fillip that confirms the show as a whole isn’t just merely watchable but something pretty sublime. The last time CBS trumpeted a one-season event this loudly we ended up with multiple seasons of “Under the Dome,” but considering the finale got half the ratings of its closest timeslot competition (“Modern Family” reruns), we can call this a thirteen-episode event, after all. And what a way to go out! Here’s hoping the next one-season Rich Crazy White People show shoots at least as high, and connects even half as much.