There is an interracial junkie couple, Aubrey (Caitlin Gerard) and Carter (Elvis Nolasco), who are as in love with each other as they are in lust with meth. Carter quickly becomes a suspect, and Aubrey has to learn how to exist on her own (finding it impossible not to think about him) while he deals with visits from his sister, Aliyah (Regina King), who chides him for falling in love with a white woman, when it’s white people who are constantly trying to bring him down. Young Hispanic teen Tony (Johnny Ortiz) finds himself implicated in the murder, mostly because of teenage stupidity, while his sister (Gleendilys Inoa) tries to keep things light during her visits and their widowed, overprotective father Alonzo (Benito Martinez, who is the actor to watch here) dances between worry, anger, and sadness, wondering what the hell he did wrong.
There are Gwen’s parents, Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller), who have differing reactions to waiting out their daughter’s coma, especially as they learn more and more about Gwen’s personal, sexual life. There’s an especially interesting question here: How can you properly react to your daughter’s perceived misdeeds as she lies in a coma; how can you allow yourself to be angry or upset with your helpless child, who could potentially die at any second? Finally, there are Matt’s parents — the aforementioned Russ, who is the more passive of the duo, and his ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman), who simultaneously shuts down and lashes out.
Barb is the easiest character to hate — a bold choice considering she’s also the grieving mother of a deceased son — because she’s the most outright racist of them all. What’s particularly interesting is that American Crime doesn’t fall into the usual traps of depicting racism. Barb doesn’t burst into the room screaming about how she hates Hispanics; her racism most often takes the form of subtle microaggressions. When told that the main suspect is Hispanic, she immediately responds, “An illegal?” During an interview she says, plainly, “My son goes off to another country to fight. Then he comes home to America and he gets killed by somebody from another country.” But in Barb’s racism is also the desperation of a mother trying to understand why it’s not considered a hate crime if the victim is white. Her bigotry is heavy and ingrained, but it’s also part of her grieving.
The most compelling characters of all are Alonzo and his family; the best scenes in the series all revolve around them, such as the early moment where Tony is interrogated at the police station, and simultaneously defends himself and remarks on his father’s overprotectiveness. Alonzo is a sort of internalized racist, someone who makes the explicit distinction between being Mexican and Mexican-American (implying that he, a Mexican-American, is better). His daughter calls him out on this: “You see someone brown with a hoodie, you think they’re a thug. You wish you were white so they’d treat you better. You hate yourself and you hate us for looking like you.” But this, too, isn’t as simple as it looks: Alonzo wants what’s best for his children and knows how they will be looked at by white people, and particularly by police officers.
American Crime has its kinks to work out, but it’s still one of the most enthralling and smartest new dramas of the television season. It’s not trying to solve the titular, bigger crime just yet; for now, it’s depicting smaller crimes and, crucially, trying start discussions. It’s the most ambitious series ABC has — even the directing is to be praised: the camera lingers on people’s reactions, focusing on the receiving end of conversations, juxtaposes the harshness of juvenile detention with the childish shots of Tony’s braces — and also the one whose early episodes come closest to actually fulfilling that ambition.