ABC’s arresting ensemble drama American Crime tries too hard, but the effort is understandable given the stigma it faces. The rising tide of scripted television has lifted the entire medium to new heights, but there remains a caste system preventing network dramas from elevating above their station. Premium cable wrote the rules of great television drama—salty language, frank sexuality, unflinching violence, and morally compromised characters—leaving constrained broadcast networks flat-footed. No matter how brash or daring a drama manages to be, it’s nearly impossible to outrun the stench of a broadcast network’s imprimatur. Crime is ABC’s latest attempt at bringing cable prestige to network television, and it’s good enough to be the exception to the rule, if only its writers can stop trying to freight it with social importance.
Crime begins with the murder of Matt Skokie, a Modesto, California military veteran, then sprawls into an ambitious exploration of race, gender, class, and privilege in the American justice system. The investigation into Matt’s killer ensnares three suspects: Tony (Johnny Ortiz), a Hispanic teen rebelling against his father Alonzo (Benito Martinez), Mexican street gangster Hector (Richard Cabral), and Carter (Elvis Nolasco), a black drug addict circling the drain with his white girlfriend Aubry (Caitlin Gerard). Matt’s mother Barb (Felicity Huffman) fights to bring her son’s killer to justice while navigating a dysfunctional relationship with Russ (Timothy Hutton), who she forces to atone for his failings as a husband and father in the wake of the murder. Crime even-handedly follows the disparate threads, concerned less with the murder itself and more with how its fallout ignites hostilities and exposes rifts in a community like Modesto.
Viewers hoping for a traditional murder-mystery won’t find it here. Creator John Ridley, best known for his Academy Award-winning 12 Years A Slave screenplay, doesn’t appear the least bit interested in who actually committed the murder. Crime has the same implicit whodunnit element as any show built around an unsolved murder. But the show never fingers Tony, Hector, or Carter, and introduces enough contradictory evidence to allow the audience to exculpate them even if the judicial system can’t yet. The murder mystery simmers below the surface, but the purpose of the killing in the story is to throw the characters into emotional disarray and force them to face trials even more abstract and arduous than the one being adjudicated in the courtroom.
Above all else, Crime is a thespian platform, providing its cast numerous opportunities for guttural weeping and righteous fury. Huffman anchors the show with a magnificent performance as Matt’s emotionally gutted mother. Barb is feral and ravenous, but Huffman never overplays her hand. She makes good on the promise she demonstrated through eight seasons of Desperate Housewives, a show in which Huffman’s stellar dramatic work often got lost in the silly, soapy shuffle. She’s so compelling that even in her duets with Hutton, who’s also at the top of his game, Hutton holds his own at best, and at worst, resembles a soggy wad of chewing tobacco resting in her cheek. If Huffman has competition, it’s only from recurring guests Lili Taylor and Regina King, who appear as Barb’s legal advocate and Carter’s pious sister. But the entire cast earns its keep, including the little-known Ortiz, who is heartbreaking and vulnerable as a young man ill-equipped to survive in the prison system.
Due to its structure, themes, and low-octane plotting, Crime will inevitably attract comparisons to Paul Haggis’ clumsy, overrated Crash, to which it bears a far closer resemblance than does the short-lived Starz series based on the film. Like Crash, Ridley’s scripts are heavy and humorless, and his direction in the first two episodes borders on distracting even at its most austere. Crime also shares Crash’s overpopulation problem. As with any story about an tapestry of intersecting characters, the audience will agree that at least one out of the bunch is totally superfluous, but will disagree on who the cipher is. But chief among the flaws Crime shares with Crash is its on-the-nose discussions about racial rancor.
Huffman’s character bears resemblance to the character played by Sandra Bullock in the film. Barb is an aggrieved white woman who thinks her willingness to generalize about other races makes her a brave voice of reason cutting through the politically-correct din. Barb’s foil is King’s character, Aliyah, a Nation Of Islam acolyte whose concern for her brother is only as great as his willingness to act as a broader symbol of racial inequities in the criminal justice system. At times, Crime tells instead of showing, with Barb and Aliyah trying to hitch their personal misfortunes to national narratives about race. In those moments, Crime becomes a blunt object and loses its ability to provoke thoughts more complex than, “It’s too bad about racism.”
Crime works best as an allegory when the racial anxiety casts a pall over the characters rather than actively driving their conversations. Whether it’s a murder or Kanye West’s faux-bum-rush at the Grammys, racial politics never need to be injected into a situation in which a person of one race is accused of trespassing against a person of another. Those implications are ever-present, and each individual gets to decide their significance and meaning. Crime takes the prevalence of racism as a given; its argument is that racism persists because people will always need to frame personal tragedy with a facile, easy-to-digest worldview, and racism happens to be an irresistibly lazy way of doing that. What unites people is the willingness to clamber over facts and logic to get to the specious conclusions—the pervasive myth of “black-on-black crime,” for example—that are more emotionally satisfying.
Crime tries to make those arguments gracefully, and frequently succeeds, but at times, the ideas are weighed down by the copious effort put into conveying them. That effort comes across as a means of compensating for its network branding while cable television is still widely thought of the exclusive home of substantive dramas. The expectations game might be difficult to win, especially with Crime getting its debut after ABC’s tonally incongruent Shonda Rhimes block. But if the writers can resist the urge to spoon-feed the audience their lofty ideas, Crime could acquit itself despite the perception of guilt by association.