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New drama American Crime is a preachy, kind of excellent, look at race and class in the US

Benito Martinez (left) and Johnny Ortiz play a father and son who find themselves wrapped up in the central crime of American Crime.
Benito Martinez (left) and Johnny Ortiz play a father and son who find themselves wrapped up in the central crime of American Crime.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To really understand and appreciate American Crime, you have to accept that it is the best show of 1987, somehow airing in the year 2015 (with standards as to sexual content shifted as well).



This may sound ludicrous, so let me explain. In the mid-1980s, the ABC network found itself stuck in third place and looking for a way to break out of that rut. The TV world of that time was very different. There were just three major broadcast networks (Fox was barely a glimmer at the end of the dial), cable networks didn't produce much original content, and PBS was doing its PBS thing.

ABC was trapped behind the mega-successful NBC (then in its Cosby Show and Cheers era) and the tried-and-true hits of CBS (like Dallas and Magnum, P.I.). So it turned to innovation, doing its damnedest to throw things on the air that were like nothing else on network TV. It had witty crime-solving caper Moonlighting and '60s nostalgia trip The Wonder Years, and blue-collar comedy blast Roseanne. Later, it had the weird, icy world of Twin Peaks and the Vietnam medical drama China Beach.

And it had thirtysomething, a drama about regular lives, as lived by regular people, that examined the hippies of the '60s moving into the professional classes of the '80s. It was sort of the Girls of its day, either driving people nuts for the characters' endless navel gazing or striking viewers as essential and true to their own experiences.

American Crime is made in the same spirit of those programs, and it airs on the same network. What's more, it takes the sorts of chances we're used to seeing cable dramas take, actively trying to interrogate an America where crime is too often viewed through the prism of race. It's a preachy, didactic, stagy-as-hell series, but it's also often a searing and beautiful one which takes its characters seriously.

Or, put another way, it's thirtysomething for an era where we earnestly try to understand cultures other than our own — if only so we can all commiserate about how we're all getting a bum deal.

A singular crime

American Crime

Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman play a divorced couple whose son is killed. (ABC)

The center of American Crime is the murder of Iraq War vet Matt Skokie during an apparent home invasion. His divorced parents, Russ Skokie and Barb Hanlon (Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman, both riveting), are alerted, while the police converge on a series of suspects, none of whom are white.

There is ample room for doubt scattered throughout the case, particularly thanks to some revelations about Matt, but that doesn't deter the wheels of the justice system from rolling forward. When there's a crime, humans need a criminal to pin it on, and when things get murky, that just increases the need to find someone to find guilty and ship off to jail.

The crime, such as it is, is secondary to what American Crime is trying to do. Yes, the case proceeds apace, but the show seems unconcerned with who actually killed Matt (and attacked his wife, who lies in a coma when the series begins). Instead, it's interested in how these events affect people from across the broad spectrum of American life, people of all races and classes. It's a big risk for a broadcast network, where it's rare for a series to deal this forthrightly with these issues. But it's an important risk nonetheless, one that it's heartening to see ABC taking.

The principal animating concern of American Crime is heartbreak. You see it in the faces of Hutton and Huffman, whose characters will never get their son back. And you see it in the face of Benito Martinez (giving the best performance in the show) as Alonzo Gutierrez, a father who tries to find a way to save his son (Johnny Ortiz) after a connection between him and the murder seems to appear.

American Crime is also willing to let all of these characters be outright awful people. Barb, in particular, seethes about "illegals" and bursts out in anger at a group of Muslim women gathered in the courthouse after a hearing in her son's case. In Huffman's hands, though, Barb's racism is an ugly extension of the hurt and pain she feels deep inside, at how thoroughly her life has fallen short of the expectations she placed on it.

Similarly, Alonzo attempts to pin blame for the crime on an illegal immigrant, since both he and his son are legal American citizens. The parents of Matt's wife struggle to come to terms with the realities of their daughter's darker moments. Drug addict Aubry (Caitlin Gerard) stumbles through dream sequences and away from the fact that she (and her boyfriend) may well be involved in whatever happened. And Russ is still paying for the fact that a dark secret of his own tore his family apart.

Does that sound like a relentless downer? It kind of is. But it's also surprisingly soulful and filled with life. And much of that is thanks to creator, writer, and pilot director John Ridley.

Creators with vision

American Crime

Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco play a drug-addicted couple drawn into the crime. (ABC)

When ABC bet the farm on unusual shows in the '80s, it did so by betting on those shows' creators above all else. That sometimes hurt it, but it usually paid off. Similarly, the ABC of 2015 has gone all in on Ridley's vision for American Crime.

This makes sense. Ridley's most recent movie project was 12 Years a Slave, for which he won an Oscar (despite controversy that the film's director, Steve McQueen, might have written more of the film than Ridley did). Thus, it also makes sense that Ridley would take whatever blank check ABC handed him and do his best to make a show that is entirely and completely his own.

This means that American Crime often feels like a stage play, where characters speak in monologues and long speeches that can wear down the viewer's patience. And it can mean that the characters often seem to exist entirely to spout op-ed columns about how America has failed them in one way or another.

But where that writing style can feel enervating on other shows, Ridley is so deeply committed to it that he mostly pulls it off.

The temptation here is to see the show as similar to films like Crash, where a long string of improbable coincidences brings people in contact with each other. But American Crime is far from that. It's about one tragic incident that unites an unlikely group of people together in sorrow, then sends dark ripples through the undercurrents of their collective unconscious.

It is, in other words, a show that wants to be "important," as the marketing for the series is only too happy to remind you. And American Crime falls short of being the best show on TV or even living up to all of its own professed goals.

But that's okay. The series tries, in its occasionally clumsy way, to live up to the fact that life in the United States can be tough, that everybody has struggles, that everybody feels ignored and mashed down by the system from time to time. With American Crime, ABC and Ridley are at least trying something. That they succeed far more often than they fail is worth praise in and of itself.

American Crime debuts Thursday, March 5, 2015, at 10 pm Eastern on ABC. It will air for the next 11 weeks in that timeslot.