Another day, another crime series. But this time, it’s a little different. American Crime — from 12 Years a Slave‘s John Ridley — has been touted as ABC’s entry into prestige television. It certainly feels that way. The 11-episode anthology series is gritty, dark, and arty (Ridley wrote and directed the first few episodes, and they feel cinematic). Its subject matter and tone also feel cable-esque, and the show will certainly be a system shock to fans of Scandal, the show’s unnatural lead-in.
American Crime starts in the wake of a brutal crime in Modesto, California. A war veteran, Matt Skokie (Grant Merritt), was killed in his home, and his wife Gwen (Kira Pozehl) was sexually assaulted and put in a coma. Matt’s divorced and antagonistic parents Russ (Timothy Hutton) and the tightly-wound Barb (Felicity Huffman), as well as his brother Mark (David Hoflin) arrive alongside Gwen’s parents Eve (Penelope Ann Miller) and Tom (W. Earl Brown) to sort through the aftermath. They grieve, fight, and fight some more, all while trying to make sense of what happened, and how to make sure justice is served.
Meanwhile, in Crash-like fashion, three other connected stories brew. In one, a gang-affiliated man named Hector (Richard Cabral) seems at first like the most likely suspect for the crime, and his story gets tied in to that of a sweet but impressionable teenager, Tony (Johnny Ortiz), who is suffocating under the rule of his strict, single father Alonzo (Benito Martinez). Already, there are challenges about perceptions of race and class; when Barb is told that a Latino man most likely killed her son, she tells everyone he was killed by “an illegal.” When Alonzo talks to the police, he’s deferential, and takes their side over his son’s. “We came to this country the right way, we do things the right way,” he insists. But everything falls on a spectrum of grey.
Elsewhere, Aubry (Caitlin Gerard) and Carter (Elvis Nolasco) are two junkies whose addiction to drugs and each other causes a desperation that is immediately felt. But later, it becomes clear that that desperation may have led Carter to act out violently against Matt, who himself was no innocent bystander. After he’s jailed for the crime (though the truth of it is not exactly revealed), Carter’s devout Muslim sister Aliyah (Regina King) fights for his justice. She’s an opposing reflection to Barb’s own dogged quest, yet neither one seems quite in the right.
American Crime is an ambitious and twisty exploration of issues like class, race, and gender, and it challenges perceptions while subverting expectations. The very notion of victims and criminals begins to become muddled, as the show takes the Broadchurch approach of deconstructing the lives of those affected directly and tangentially by the crime, revealing secrets and bringing lies to light.
As of its first four episodes, the series is bold, but the storytelling is slow, and viewers should make no mistake — there is no levity to be found here. American Crime is serious; it’s also unrelentingly dark. Music is scarce, because it’s not necessary to manipulate emotions. Everything is intense. The main characters are angry, upset, in anguish, filled with hate or hurt or both (the acting is superb). There are clashes of righteous fury, painful revelations, and delusions that are clung to in order to stay sane in what feels like a realm of chaos. But its oppressively grim tone also feels heavy-handed, as do the monologues on The Big Issues.
American Crime‘s overarching theme, though, is one of family, and those character studies are what make the show interesting. The desire to protect loved ones in a way that also means confronting the truth and, ultimately, having to extend grace, is a lesson hard-earned and slowly learned. But confronting the show itself may also be hard-earned and a slow burn for viewers willing to face its stark realities. American Crime may be an easy show to admire, but it’s not necessarily easy to like.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
American Crime premieres Thursday, March 5th at 10 p.m. ET.