Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton in ABC Television’s “American Crime.”
American Crime wants to tell you something. About America, obviously. And about our criminal justice system, to be sure. But it really wants to talk to you about race and class and how they intersect with justice and violence. In fact, the entire first episode script can be characterized as someone sitting down in front of you, earnestly looking you in the eyes and saying, “I’d like to talk to you about race in America and how it intersects with class, justice and violence.” The subject matter is compelling, timely and important. But in this case, the speaker and the presentation don’t work hard enough to engage the audience, who is, after all, sitting down to watch a TV drama.
American Crime wants to show you something. Uncharacteristically for a network TV drama, every frame is filled to the brim. Items and people are foregrounded and backgrounded. Art direction ranges from deceptively non-existent to aggressively over done. That drug den looked more like the beginnings of an upscale hipster brew house, for instance. But the point is, it has something to show you and it’s working harder than most network TV does to show it to you in an arresting way.
American Crime wants to make you feel something. In order to accomplish that, it’s a show stocked to the rafters with excellent actors giving riveting performances. Timothy Hutton, plays the grizzled, befuddled (begrizzled?) grieving father of the crime victim to Felicity Huffman’s bitter, clearly racist grieving ex-wife – and the resulting scenes are both electrifying in the way you immediately get caught up in the dynamics of their relationship and horrifying because of the grief and ugliness on display. There’s a rather clear but well done attempt to give Huffman’s character Barb some context for her racism when she screams at her ex-husband for gambling away all their money and forcing her to live in poverty and send her kids to a school dominated by poor and working class people of color. Not that it’s an attempt to excuse or explain the things she says, just that the show has a clear mission of attempting to tell all sides of the story.
It occurs to us that, with one of the more diverse casts in television on tap, we singled out only the two white performers for praise. In our defense, this was very much the “white people” episode, giving voice to their paranoia, grief and racism as they deal with the crime – and, in a manner that kind of bugged us, stacking the deck a little on some of the racial aspects of the show. We suspect these things will become more nuanced over time (we sure hope so, or we’re looking at the TV equivalent of Crash) but it landed like an anvil that the violent black drug addict has a model-pretty blonde, white addict girlfriend, for instance. And their dirty, scabby lifestyle is deliberately contrasted with Mandingo-like advertising images of muscular black men in the tropics with pretty blonde white women on their arms. Then there are the ways the show makes clear distinctions between “good” Hispanic people and bad ones; hardworking middle class ones who insist on children doing homework and speaking English vs. scarred and tattoo’d violent men with accents so thick they almost sound like parodies. Like we said, we’ll be looking for more rounded portrayals and concepts down the line, but the heavy-handed ways in which racial aspects and questions were dealt with in this first episode did give us some pause for concern.
It’s possible we’re confusing the show with the hype for the show, but American Crime is a show that comes across heavy with its own importance. The kind of TV you watch because you think you have to rather than because you want to. In this year, where race and law enforcement have intersected in such explosive ways in this country, a show like this can’t afford to pull its punches if it wants an audience. And to its credit, it really doesn’t. To the extent a network show can do “raw,” this is as raw as network TV gets. But it’s a slog – and it doesn’t seem particularly interested in paying off whatever commitment you make to finishing it. It didn’t occur to us until long after the episode ended that we essentially have a murder mystery on our hands. And the reason it took us so long to realize this is because the show’s creator, John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, has a clear unwillingness to turn this into a murder mystery. That’s not what it’s “about,” even though the entire story hinges on who committed the crime at the center of it. There are things to be said and it feels like the show is going to devote its considerable energy to saying those things rather than telling an emotionally satisfying story. It’s quality television with sharp writing, subtle and smart direction and very good performances, touching on a lot of issues in American society, culture and politics right now. But, for this first episode at least, it’s about as entertaining as, well, a documentary on race in America and how it intersects with class, violence and justice.
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[Photo Credit: ABC]
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