Acclaimed film directors choosing to work in series television isn’t a new development. What’s new is that more of them are choosing to work in broadcast, a different and very demanding animal, as opposed to cable, where they can usually exert more control over their product. Cable channels can make series renewal decisions based on what’s good for their respective brand.
The broadcast TV machine, on the other hand, requires a show to pull in big audience numbers consistently, over the course of many weeks and months. To achieve that feat, a series has burn story at just the right pace and give us characters we want to welcome into our homes. Knowing how to roll out a story in two hours is a very different challenge than doing it over many weeks, and possibly over multiple seasons.
This is not to imply that film directors can’t hack it in broadcast television; Oscar nominated-director Lee Daniels scored a monstrous hit for Fox with “Empire,” which he co-created with Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong. But “Empire” is a sizzling new take on a tried-and-true TV genre, the primetime soap. “American Crime,” on the other hand, is a hourlong drama created and executive produced by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley with aspirations of being a Very Important Film, spun out over 11 hours of television.
An examination of race and class dynamics passed through the prism of a murder case, “American Crime” is likely draw more than a few comparisons to series such as “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” series that treat each episode like chapters of a novel, presenting characters with literary levels of depth.
But the stories and the people populating “American Crime” are dirty, raw and real, and the way the titular crime plays out makes the easily tied up cases of “Law & Order” look like a child’s fantasies. Nobody in this show comes out completely clean or unsympathetic– not the outwardly respectable family of the murder victim, or the haggard cops; not the hardworking Hispanic father whose son gets sucked into the vortex of the legal system; not the gangbangers, the meth heads or any of the criminals taking the blame for the crime.
Similarly, nothing about the crime in question is black and white, beyond that it happened, and that certain aspects of the case end up connecting very different people. Our gateway into this story is Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton), who is summoned to Modesto, California to identify the remains of his son, Matt. The cops inform Russ that Matt was murdered in a home invasion and that his daughter-in-law, Gwen, sustained a brutal assault and is in a coma.
From there, Russ reaches out to his embittered ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman) and Gwen’s parents Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller). As more details about the case emerge, the couples quickly become adversarial as they battle over details about their kids, and their relationships with each other, that have nothing to do with the crime.
The most interesting character in this faction is Huffman’s Barb, who is deeply damaged by her failed marriage to Russ. Barb wants to take out her grief-fueled anger on Russ and the suspects, and very soon her racial prejudices boil to the surface. But the police aren’t sure who is to blame: A menacing Latino gangbanger (Richard Cabral) looks good for the crime, but he quickly implicates an unstable meth head (Elvis Nolasco), an African American man in a co-dependent relationship with a white girl who’s also an addict. The police scoop up everybody, and for a while, it looks like nothing will get in the way of cleanly prosecuting the case. Until something does.
Drawn into this morass is the family of Alonzo Gutiérrez (Benito Martinez), a Mexican-American business owner trying to raise his kids by himself, who proudly distinguishes his hard-working family from illegals. He soon sees that society at large doesn’t honor that distinction when his son Tony’s (Johnny Ortiz) small act of rebellion ends up implicating him in the murder.
There’s a lot of story to service in “American Crime,” and with it, a ponderous amount of social commentary to parse. To his credit, Ridley interweaves and develops each storyline with a thoughtfulness and intricacy rarely seen in primetime.
“American Crime” also illustrates the flaws in the system that favor citizens of higher economic status and penalize the working class. The Gutiérrez storyline, in particular, exposes how efforts to cooperate with police and do what one thinks is the right thing can end up incriminating the innocent nevertheless. More heartbreaking is the fallout of Alonzo’s actions, which lead to rifts within his family.
This is a series that allows its actors to flex every bit of their range to illuminate the case’s complexities. But the cinematic artistry at work here, particularly visible in the framing of each camera shot, makes “American Crime” something truly extraordinary in broadcast. One of the best elements of each episode is the camera’s insistence on maintaining tight, off-center shots on one actor during intense dialogues, as if to peek over the other actor’s shoulder; it makes the view a participant in the tension and tragedy within those moments.
The big question is whether “American Crime” is too methodical and too serious for Ridley to achieve the level of mass appeal that Daniels and “Empire” have. This is a very real concern; vital as it is for Americans to have conversations about racial inequity and class favoritism, especially given recent events in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere, it may be too much to expect the average viewer to dive in to this excellently rendered but extremely depressing story week after week.
Viewers who appreciate serialized storytelling that inspires conversation, and expands our perception of what broadcast television can be, will have a wonderful new fascination with “American Crime”. The rest of you can continue being seduced by the struggles and schemes of another fascinating TV character who’s done hard time. I’m referring, of course, to “Empire’s” Cookie.
“American Crime” premieres at 10pm Thursday, March 5 on ABC.