‘Gothic television’ is a contentious category, not least because it has no currency in the industry structures which organize, produce and market television series in the United States. In scholarship, the term is better established but controversial because it appears to be an oxymoron at the level of form: the gothic is associated with the fantastic, and television with verisimilitude (see Robson 2007: 242). In one of the earlier essays to wrestle with the subject, Lenora Ledwon suggests that gothic television grafts together these competing rubrics:
television's heavy reliance on ‘reality programming’ would seem to tip the scales in favour of common life, drying up television's potential for ‘fancy’. Lynch's Twin Peaks can be seen as a twentieth-century reconciliation of common and uncommon, home-like and uncanny, domestic and Gothic.(Ledwon 1993: 268)
What such discussion overlooks, however, is the ways in which the gothic has, from its inception, responded to realism and its cognates: as David B. Morris notes of the first gothic novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto actively subverts the prosaic vision of the world implicit in novelistic conventions of probability and verisimilitude’ (Morris 1985: 301). Such arguments as Morris's paint the gothic as reactive, even formally parasitic, but they do provide context for the interdependence of gothic television series and realist forms: most American gothic series follow dramatic series convention in centring either on a home or a workplace, for instance. But the gothic is also focused on reaction in another sense – the response of characters and, tacitly by extension, audiences to the completely improbable and excessive. In what follows, I shall focus on these three aspects of American gothic television: first, the entwined relationship between realism and the gothic in early television; second, the focus of gothic series on probable characters in improbable situations; and, finally, the division of gothic television into conventional dramatic domestic and workplace forms, and their challenge to that dramatic division.
Realism, the Gothic and Production History
Gothic is, in formalist parlance, a mode, not a genre. It is a mood, a style (like the pastoral or the comic), rather than a structure (like the sonnet or the novel), and as a mode it can be deployed in combination with other modes and across genres.