Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, David Hoflin

The problem with frank conversations about race and prejudice, particularly as it pertains to American life, is that the issue is so enormous that it’s impossible to have a comprehensive discussion on the subject. There’s too much at stake with too many affiliated tendrils to ever feel as if it’s a topic that has anything close to a solution, much less one that could be reached by simple dialogue. So instead of having the big important conversations about race and really digging into the main course that is oppression, society tends to prefer it’s race conversations in amuse-bouche portions, just bite-sized bits of conflict that fuel the Twitter outrage fires for days until they eventually burn themselves out, often just in time for another flare up.

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It’s easier to invest in the fate of Justine Sacco, a PR person who made a stupidly racist tweet that went viral and blew up her life than it is to sit-down and have ongoing dialogues about the ways we continue to be complicit in the subjugation of others. Just like it’s easier to argue about whether it is or isn’t okay to tell a rape joke than it is to commit to raising awareness about sexual assault. Some issues are so large that it feels pointless to commit to trying to change them and we instead distract ourselves with fights that seem winnable. Or, at least, fights that allow us to retain our moral high ground.

The exception to the race conversation is when it takes place with enough remove that the people involved don’t feel they bear the burden of culpability. 12 Years a Slave, which American Crime creator John Ridley, penned the screenplay for was lauded in Hollywood, where Selma fell short for any number of reasons, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that part of it dealt with the remove of history. There are few people alive today who would feel particularly burdened by the guilty of slave-ownership because enough time has passed that we feel no particular responsibility for its trespasses. With Selma, however, the age of the Civil Rights movement isn’t that far gone. Representative John Lewis is portrayed in the film as a young man. So not only does the audience for the film potentially remember the events being depicted, but they also carry within them some culpability, regardless of which side of history they fell on. Moreover, the film bore significant and intentional ties to the events in Ferguson, MO, a gash on the modern civil rights conversation that hasn’t even begun to heal. It’s harder for people to invest in something that makes them feel guilty, no matter how much they may need to hear the message it brings.

This is the struggle with the show that American Crime wants to be. Investing in a full-court press, in which everyone has blood on their hands is an important conversation to have, but a difficult one to sit down and participate in week after week. When the show succeeds at getting the audience to invest in its characters, it simultaneously alienates them with the knowledge that there are no happy endings here. Polemics serve an important purpose in social dialogue but are difficult to stretch into a sustainable television series.

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“Episode Five” was particularly unforgiving to the American Crime characters who could least afford it. Finally out on bail, Carter is reunited with Aubry in a very sweet, loving moment. They kiss and caress and eventually fall asleep. When Carter awakens he finds that Aubry’s cut his ankle tracker off and wants him to run away with her because she has a plan. As horrible as that seems, the situation only disintegrates from there, with Aubry’s “plan” encompassing getting over the Canadian border with driver licenses and finding someone to sneak them over to Vietnam. And also beer. And also, ideally, drugs. It becomes more and more evident that Aubry is completely strung out and after a pointless day trip, Carter returns her to Modesto. Yet, that’s not where their story ends. Aubry then borrows money from her brother and has Carter take her to buy drugs, at which point Carter is attacked for his previous misdeeds. Aubry, newly high, springs into action, nicks a guy’s artery, and steals more of his product before ’15 Bonnie and Clyde land back at home, where Aubry promptly overdoses with Carter weeping over her body before being hauled off in the back of a police cruiser.

The progression of the story was relentless and spiraled so far out of control it eventually became like watching someone rip out their own stitches. Yet, that wasn’t the only gut punch of the episode, literally. Jenny was attacked by a boy after defending her brother’s name and ended up at home with a bruised and bloodied face. Alonzo’s church has been made uncomfortable by his comments about illegal immigrants and would prefer the family not attend the Sunday service. Mark is getting married but kept his dating status from his mother because he knew she wouldn’t approve of the woman he loves.

There are ways to tackle difficult and broad societal issues on television without making the entire endeavor grim and unsustainable. One need look only as far as something like Rectify, or even Orange is the New Black handle issues of imprisonment and rehabilitation to see that there are ways to have both peaks and valleys when dealing with serious story matters. It doesn’t always have to be desolate and irredeemable. There can be hope and there can be brief moments of reprieve. The audience believes that there can be a better life for these characters, if only for a moment. It remains to be seen whether or not the show agrees.

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Stray observations:

  • Russ seems to be on his way to making a new friend at work. That’s a bright spot, at least.
  • I continue to be fascinated by Tony’s journey. He seems to be making new and true friends and feel like he belongs more in his skin and yet it’s clear that this path will lead him to some unpleasant places.
  • Alonzo is probably not helping his case much by accusing his priest of caring more about “them” (illegal immigrants) than his family.
  • Oh man, Mark marrying a woman of color was not something I was anticipating. That should be a glorious thing to watch come to fruition.
  • Hector is trying to make his information work for him, insisting that now that the physical evidence is falling through on Carter’s case that his testimony is valuable enough to get him out of trouble in Mexico. We’ll see if he can pull it off.
  • The easy chemistry between Elvis Nolasco and Caitlin Gerard is fascinating to watch. I was particularly struck with the way he played with the dimple in her chin. It seemed like such an intimate and familiar gesture that projected true intimacy.
  • I am not looking forward to what Carter’s day trip will cost him. I hope it’s not his life.
  • I do miss the days when you could get into Canada with just a license.

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