Four episodes of the first season of “American Crime” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Harrowing and horrifying as its depiction of slavery might have been, one of the iconic shots of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave was also one of its simplest. As the abducted free man Solomon Northup, star Chiwetel Ejiofor silently takes pause on a Georgian plantation and just…looks. It’s a lengthy shot, discomfiting at first for its rigidity, then outright confrontational once Ejiofor’s gaze happens upon the camera. Whether its purpose was to indict the audience or close the last inches separating them from Northup’s experience, the moment demanded the viewer look into the eyes of an oft unseen, but defining face of American identity.
Widely advertised as being “From the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley’s new series, American Crime, shares more in common with the Oscar-winning film through his choices behind the camera, rather than on the page. Whether as homage or challenge to what Steve McQueen accomplished as the director of 12 Years, Ridley’s first foray into network showrunning evokes some of the finer qualities of filmmaking that you’ll find outside of television, network or otherwise.
As entertainment, American Crime demonstrates similar ambition. Using the anthology format that’s all the rage these days on cable, American Crime adopts a bird’s eye perspective of its titular crime that can’t help but engender comparisons to one of the great TV dramas of all time. It also happens to open just as every other hot, short-run series does these days: with a murder. Feel free to fit in an eye-roll during the paragraph break below.
Series founded on rigor mortis are so popular right now that namedropping contemporaries like they were police jargon is often the best way to describe new shows looking to further crowd the corpse field (“We’ve got a Broadchurch on the corner of Fargo and Fortitude. Send a unit to investigate once their done with The Killing over The Bridge.”). So who’s on the mortician’s slab this time? Dead kid from a sleepy coastal town? Dead prom queen with a bunch of dirty laundry? String of dead hookers possibly related to a backwoods secret society? Reductively, the answer is: dead military husband/golden boy Matt Skokie (Grant Merritt), and his comatose wife, Gwen (Kira Pozehl). Were someone to give you odds on the Skokies really being the picture perfect couple implied by their white-bred background, would there be any long enough for you to place a bet?
What separates American Crime from those many, many potential contemporaries is that, of the dozen-ish main characters, not one is involved in law enforcement. You’ll find no witty repartee between a green cop and their haunted superior here, no world-weary detectives, true, or otherwise. When the police are involved, it’s as facilitators and obstacles to the family members touched by the crime, and those rightly or wrongly accused of committing it. American Crime is less an investigation into a murder than it is an exploration of what happens when unspoken and unheard social stigmas turn a dead body into a soapbox.
In both tone and focus, American Crime is far less welcoming than your average thriller mystery, thanks to a kitchen sink approach to issues of class, race, gender, and faith that turns the American melting pot into a pressure cooker. If you’re after a flavor more varied than alternately serious and solemn, best look elsewhere; American Crime is not made for ease of consumption.
It’s that willingness to trust the audience’s engagement and attention span that allows Ridley to take American Crime in directions rarely explored by television crime stories. Though billed as the leads, Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman’s perspective as Matt’s long-estranged parents provides but one of the many points of impact the killing has on the sun-rotted city of Modesto, California. The case itself initially surrounds a pair of star-crossed meth users (Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco), their tangential connection to an illegal Mexican gang member drawing a legal immigrant family (led by The Shield’s Benito Martinez) into the police dragnet.
Through the first four hours, careful consideration is given to fleshing out the many characters into people more complicated than the stereotypes informing how others view them, and how they perceive others. It’s asking trust of the viewer that following some of these threads will eventually pay off on a scale grander than they might initially appear capable of. Some character plots lack immediate ties to the central case in American Crime, but they’re nonetheless vital to the broader sociological tapestry Ridley is attempting to weave.