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American Gothic’s Creator Talks about New Show

Corinne Brinkerhoff (COM’04) heads up CBS murder mystery

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Since graduating 12 years ago, Corinne Brinkerhoff has written and produced for several network TV shows, including Boston Legal, The Good Wife, and Jane the Virgin, which won a 2014 Peabody Award. Now the College of Communication alum is heading up her own show as executive producer and creator of the CBS murder mystery American Gothic, which premiered June 22.

The 13-part miniseries is the story of a wealthy Boston family that finds out their deceased patriarch may well have been a serial killer, and may have been assisted in his crimes by a family member who is still around. The show, described by the New York Times as “well cast,” stars Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight), and Justin Chatwin (Shameless). While the story is set in Boston, it was filmed in Toronto, where the University of Toronto campus stands in for MIT and the Boston Public Library and the Boston Police headquarters were re-created inside a massive soundstage. Brinkerhoff (COM’04), who lived in Boston when she attended BU, says some of the show’s producers are from the area, so they kept an ear out to make sure that the actors’ accents were authentic.

BU Today spoke with Brinkerhoff about the show’s development and how it differs from other murder mysteries on TV.

BU Today: Where did you get the idea for American Gothic?

Brinkerhoff: The idea came from Full Fathom Five, American Gothic executive producer James Frey’s company. They gave me the title and a paragraph premise, and it piqued my interest. I was less interested in the gruesome details of serial murder and more in the emotional and psychological fallout on the people close to the killer. It developed into a character-driven murder mystery.

The previous show you wrote for, Jane the Virgin, is a romantic comedy and a drama. What drew you to a darker series?

I’m always interested in putting complicated characters in difficult situations. And the themes that emerged from this situation were intriguing: the limits of family loyalty, nature vs. nurture, perception vs. reality, the power of denial.

Watch the trailer for American Gothic in the video above.

How did you come up with the show’s title?

The name came from Full Fathom Five. I felt it was perfect because the iconic Grant Wood painting is thematically appropriate for our show: at first glance, a benign snapshot of domesticity, upon further inspection…something is awry. That off-kilter, unsettling vibe is key to the show.

We decided to run with fine art as a motif. We’ve titled each episode after a famous American painting that thematically fits into that particular chapter of our story, and we also feature a shot within the episode that pays tribute to the famous image. For example, the pilot episode is called “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” which ties in thematically with the moral gray areas and outright darkness on display in the episode. But we also re-create the tableau of the painting (known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother) in the last shot of the episode.

Episode two, “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” finds young Jack speaking from the pulpit at a funeral, and we also see an extreme close-up of a flower at the memorial that resembles the jack-in-the-pulpit flower from the Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Episode three is titled “Nighthawks,” after the Edward Hopper painting, and centers on our characters engaging in some clandestine nighttime adventures, which puts one of them at the counter of a late-night diner. We have a key character, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, who we named Christina for Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

It’s been a fun, creative challenge to identify the right painting and find a way for our story to organically take us to that homage.

Why did you set the show in Boston?

The simple answer is because it’s a place I know and love. I could easily add specificity. We talk about Duck Tours, the Frog Pond, the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. The family’s dog is named Pudge after Carlton Fisk.

Beyond that, our family on the show has blue collar roots, but has rocketed into the one percent after securing a lucrative construction contract in the ’90s. Boston felt right for that, with its history of city-wide construction projects like the Big Dig.

You have the Good Will Hunting version of Boston and the blue-blood Kennedy version, and this family has seen a little of each.

How does American Gothic differ from other murder mysteries on TV, Bloodline and Blue Bloods, for instance?

There’s a healthy dose of quirky, dark comedy in the show that I think distinguishes it tonally. For example, Justin Chatwin plays a recovering drug addict who draws a syndicated cartoon about a nihilist frog working in a market research firm. The Hawthornes try to appear normal, but their world is full of bizarre people and insane circumstances.

The show is a 13-part series—did that appeal to you? Do you think this shorter format versus a more traditional longer run is growing in popularity?

Absolutely. I didn’t want to artificially extend the premise beyond what it was designed to be.

And yes, people seem to like the shorter format, especially in this genre. With a murder mystery, I think audiences want a satisfying and timely payoff to their investment.

You have another show in the works, No Tomorrow. Can you give a hint what it’s about and when we should expect to see it?

It’s a drastically different tone, more in the vein of Jane the Virgin. It’s a joyful, buoyant show about a risk-averse young woman who falls in love with a freewheeling man—only to find out he lives his life that way because he believes the apocalypse is imminent. We think of it as a romantic comedy with the ultimate ticking clock. It premieres on October 4 at 9 p.m. on the CW, right after The Flash.

American Gothic airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. through September on CBS.

1 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

One Comment on American Gothic’s Creator Talks about New Show

  • Cheryl Webb Scott on 07.06.2016 at 11:18 am

    I love the interview in this article. All the questions I would want to ask are in the article. The association with Boston and the discussion about using the local “inside” knowlege that comes with living here makes the readre want to watch the show!

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