ABC’s ‘American Crime’ Is an Ambitious Exploration of Race Relations

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If ABC is seeking the title of best network of the 2014-15 season, then American Crime is just the show it needs to push it over the edge. Granted, ABC has already been on fire with its new programming — diverse successes How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Cristela, and Fresh Off the Boat all more than made up for the poor Manhattan Love Story. Yes, it’s sad the network didn’t give Selfie a proper chance — but the others were all surefire hits (three are family comedies that generally work on ABC, while one has the massive power of Shonda Rhimes behind it). All that’s left for ABC to prove is that it can find success outside of its usual fare. American Crime, its entry into the prestige drama category, suggests that it can and will.

An anthology crime series from 12 Years a Slave‘s John Ridley, American Crime starts off strong, and retains its appeal throughout the first four episodes sent to critics. Unlike plenty of other attempts at “prestige drama,” the show’s prestige comes naturally with the material, making it an easy addition to the Golden Age of Television — if we’re still in one, that is. It provides a nuanced, if occasionally heavy-handed, take on race and explores different facets of racism: from the overt to the subconscious to the internalized.

The pilot opens with two phone calls: First, a 911 call reporting a murder, then a call from the homicide department to Russ (Timothy Hutton) in the middle of the night, waking him up with the news of his son’s murder. Matt Skokie, a white Iraq War Veteran, has been found dead and his wife Gwen is hospitalized after the attack (and shows signs of a possible sexual assault). There’s a jarring cut early on in the episode as Russ quietly identifies his son’s body while standing in a dark hallway; then, suddenly, another quick cut finds Russ loudly sobbing with grief in a brightly lit bathroom. This is designed to grab your attention and keep it, to let you know that this series will be unflinching — and that it will be all the better for it. American Crime is a murder mystery where the murder and the mystery are the least compelling aspects. There are other, more important mysteries to be solved, namely Ridley’s in-depth exploration of race relations in America, which always comes first. The victims are white, the suspects are black and Hispanic, and everything is enthrallingly, devastatingly murky.

American Crime is populated by a whole slew of interesting characters. And some fare better than others; the show is still is very much in its infancy, attempting to put everyone front and center instead of allowing the better, more captivating characters to naturally shine. It can be hard to follow at first because it’s somewhat dizzying, even though the pacing is slow — the series doesn’t seem to be in a rush to solve the murder, something that I find both curious and refreshing as it allows the narrative to favor characters over dramatic action.

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.